COMMENCEMENT SPEECHES ARE A PRIVILEGE, NOT A RIGHT

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Bisma Shahbaz is a junior international studies major.
Bisma Shahbaz is a junior international studies major.

As we all know, or hopefully know, freedom of speech protects our right to openly communicate our ideas whether they are intellectual or hateful, but that doesn’t mean anyone is obliged to listen to you. Previous commencement speak- ers such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, International Mone- tary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have all had a taste of this reality when students began protesting their respected Univer- sity’s choice to invite these individuals to speak on their graduation, but due to uproar and protests, their scheduled ap- pearance was canceled.

UC Berkeley this year controver- sially has chosen a man some people actually think is funny: Bill Maher. Maher is not only a stand-up come- dian, but also the host of his own show, “Real Time with Bill Maher” where he can compare the entire religion of Is- lamtotheMafia,trytopassitoffasa fact, and still have an entire audience applaud for him. Some students at UC Berkeley are not happy with their university’s decision to invite Maher, prompting them to start a petition with the intention of revoking his invitation to speak. As of now, it has over 4,000 signatures. The student led committee assigned with the task to pick com- mencement speakers, The Californians, decided to repeal Maher’s invitation, but the administration at UC Berkeley, ignoring the collective voice of students has refused to retract their invitation to Maher and will continue to honor him at the graduation this year, which coin- cides with the 50th anniversary of UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement.

As a Muslim, and someone who un- derstands and sees the damage the neg- ative portrayal of Muslims and Islam in the media has in real life, Maher would never be someone I would choose to in- vite as a speaker. UC Berkeley has clearly stated that they do not endorse Maher’s opinions, but believe he has the right to express them openly, which I believe in as well–no matter how much I disagree with them. Censorship is the center of the issue here, and it is evident that UC Berkeley does not want to go down in history as ironically censoring Maher in the midst of celebrating their free speech movement because he is contentious.

However, I still seem to have a prob- lem with the choice. This is not the time nor place. UC Berkeley could’ve easily created an event where they invited Ma- her to speak freely about his beliefs and the students would have the choice to at- tend or not. Students on graduation day will be forced to sit down and listen to him, and it would be quite ridiculous to suggest students walk out on the day of their graduation. They should have cre- ated a platform of discussion where both sides of the argument could be heard and debated, instead of honoring one side and silencing the other.

 

There are almost 6,000 signatures on a Change.org petition authored by a Berkeley student calling for the revocation of the invitation made to Bill Maher to speak at this semester's commencement.more than just gardening. Students serve the greater community by cooking free dinners with the food they harvest and glean. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHANGE.ORG
There are almost 6,000 signatures on a Change.org petition authored by a Berkeley student calling for the revocation of the invitation made to Bill Maher to speak at this semester’s commencement.more than just gardening. Students serve the greater community by cooking free dinners with the food they harvest and glean. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHANGE.ORG

My second problem lies in the fact that UC Berkeley could have honored someone who is actively taking part in promoting free speech where it is needed the most: under oppressive re- gimes, despite chances of persecutions. UC Berkeley could’ve tried to invite Iranian reporter, Maziar Bahari, who was arrested in 2009 after he sat down with Jason Jones from the “Daily Show With Jon Stewart” on claims that he was speaking to an American spy. The arrests came after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards took a harder line against jour- nalists who opposed or criticized the state. Bahari was put into solitary con- finement and was tortured consistently, which caused international outcry. His case was highlighted in Newsweek, and over 100 journalists signed the Com- mittee to Protect Journalists petition for his release. By Oct 17, 2010 he was released, and since then he has spoken on censorship in Iran, and imprisoned journalists. Jon Stewart and Bahari have gotten together to produce a film, Rose- water, releasing this month, to illustrate how the international community can help journalists in prisons get released, dangers of being a journalists, and why we need to protect journalists. At the end of the day, UC Berkeley should’ve chosen someone who has something valuable to contribute to these gradu- ating students. They should’ve chosen someone who understands the impor- tance of free speech, not someone priv- ileged enough to sit behind a desk and spew whatever thoughts come to mind.

Universities cannot revoke invita- tions to every speaker students find controversial, but they should expect students to voice their discontent. I do not expect the students at UC Berkeley to be happy about the choice to go with Maher, but what I do expect is univer- sities and the committees who choose commencement speakers to learn to make better choices, and choose speak- ers with better credentials.

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