To Whomever This May Concern:
I would like to begin this correspondence by mentioning the fact that I greatly admire the work that FIRE does to protect the free speech rights of students and faculty on college campuses. Your organization was instrumental in helping a student organization of which I am a member beat back reactionary forces on my campus. However, I am concerned with your stated position on the push by students to disinvite Bill Maher as a commencement speaker at UC Berkeley. More generally, I am concerned with your position on the recent push by students to disinvite a number of commencement speakers at various universities across the country. This is not an issue of free speech, and by claiming that it is one you are revealing your organization to not just be a protector of free speech but also a reactionary force in your own right. Your deliberate obfuscation of the core issue here is troubling and speaks to FIRE’s ideological leanings and values. The students leading the charge to disinvite Bill Maher have made their justifications abundantly clear and not one of them has to do with free speech. In fact, in several instances, in articles and blogposts they have explicitly stated that their decision has nothing to with free speech.
“There is no question Maher has a right to speak on campus; but the question is whether commencement, a time of celebration for all students, including those victimized by Maher’s commentary, is the appropriate forum. UC Berkeley undoubtedly must remain committed to principles of free speech. But this is not a matter of free speech — Maher can iterate his beliefs on campus at a debate or club event. This is about granting Bill Maher the honor of being our commencement speaker when he clearly spreads ignorance and intolerance affecting the very people he would be addressing.
Though we strongly disagree with the substance of Bill Maher’s racist, sexist and homophobic language, we value the university’s role as a public academic institution committed to preserving the free exchange of ideas — even when those ideas are at odds with our own. If the administration worries that it is discouraging debate by revoking this invitation, the administration is welcome to invite Maher to an open forum on campus instead.”
I would encourage you to read the bold statements especially carefully. The same assertion was made in the case of Ayaan Ali Hirsi, and still FIRE continues to characterize this recent movement to force administrations to cancel commencement speakers as representative of an assault on free speech. The notion that a commencement ceremony can be characterized as a setting in which the free exchange of ideas is happening is patently absurd. The students are out the door. It is a celebration of their accomplishments. The speaker and whatever they are about to say are being honored and endorsed by the university. It is a choice to elevate one person’s voice above all others, and the notion that the students, the students whose accomplishments are being celebrated, should not have a say in choosing the speaker is anti-democratic. The plain fact of the matter is that they should decide who is going to speak because it is a celebration of their accomplishments. FIRE draws a false equivalence between commencement speakers and other speakers by asserting that this is an issue of free speech. University administrations do not endorse the views of other speakers, and, in fact, when calls for disinvitation erupt in response they are quick to assert that fact. The same can not be said for commencement speakers.