The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Bill Maher's argues of free speech

4 min read
By COLEMAN HOPKINS “I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore,” Bill Maher said exasperatedly to his audience via broadcast last Friday.
Christopher Harte/ Flickr
Christopher Harte/ Flickr


“I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore,” Bill Maher said exasperatedly to his audience via broadcast last Friday.

The college he speaks of is that of U.C. Berkeley. In an attempt to be politically correct, students there are trying to ban Maher from speaking at their school this December on the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free-Speech Movement. Students stated they believe his recent comments on the conflict in Islamic states have been uncalled for, as well as insulting.

For anyone who keeps up with the liberal talk show, you probably heard that the past month or so has not been too kind on HBO’s Real Time host.

Last month, Maher had actor and political activist Ben Affleck on his show to discuss and promote his new movie, the psychological thriller “Gone Girl.” The conversation eventually transitioned into a disscusion on current events, including Islam, ISIS and the Middle East.

Surprisingly, both liberals took different sides on the issue and a heated debate ensued. Maher, a perpetual critic of religion, pounced on Islam’s record of intolerance and denounced it as the greatest threat to human rights that exists in the world today.

Maher went even further, remarking on the origins of Islam as compared to the other two Abrahamic religions, with trademark Maher colloquialism that Islam is a religion, “based on violence.”

Rather than back down against such a sharp criticism, Affleck countered Maher in an equally forceful manner, ultimately denouncing the host as a bigot.

Since then, Maher has received constant media attention, attention that he blames on having an A-list celebrity on his show for a change, in the form of opinion pieces and coverage from left and right leaning media on his statements.

Maher’s comments on Islam gave him nontraditional support from the right, who view his assessment as ‘basically correct’.

In contrast, outlets such as the Huffington Post convicted him of being an ‘Islamophobe’ and a racist that does not divide Islam’s peaceful nature from what is going on internationally because he is too ignorant and biased.

Maher is now dealing with a petition from University of California at Berkeley students that aims to ban him from their commencement ceremony for his statements, which the students find to be in conflict with the school’s accepting nature.

In turn, a massive social media outcry sparked on Twitter, with some people denouncing Maher, some taking up his defense and some just laughing at the situation.

While some of the Tweets regarding Maher’s comments are humorous, the overarching issue concerning free speech is rather serious. It is very alarming that there is such a large sentiment against the idea of having a debate on Islam. Moreover, the fact that more than 5,000 students signed the petition against Maher at a liberal university is terrifying, especially since it is against a liberal principal such as free speech.

It is said that the crown jewel of our Constitution is the First Amendment, which, in part, guarantees free speech, even when it is unpopular or critical of institutions and people. However, that does come with some loose boundaries, such as the prohibition of hate speech.

By calling Maher’s criticism of Islam hate speech, we undermine the very point of our ability to speak our minds. By redefining what is a ‘hate speech,’ we embrace a very nondemocratic idea of censorship concerning controversial issues.

Sadly, this is not the first time this happened or even the first time I have written about this. In fact, last spring Brandeis University in Boston banned another critic of Islam from speaking, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, because she supposedly offended Muslim students.

This Maher incident has yet to fully play out, but if it occurs the way the Brandies controversy ended, which I sadly expect it will, then we will be left with a paradoxical question: how do seemingly liberal universities sacrifice fundamental liberal principles to defend an intolerant and non-compromising religion that stands opposed to the concept of equality and freedom?

While I do not endorse Maher or the things that he says or stands for, I fully believe that he has a right to express himself. When it comes down to it, we live in America, not Russia or Iran or Saudi Arabia. There should be open debate on ideas that we disagree with because there can be.

By silencing all criticism of Islam and preventing an open debate, we are essentially condoning the current social and political trends in the Middle East today: the stonings, the homophobia, the mass-murder, the codified gender inequality and the restrictions on human rights. Without an open debate, how do we expect people in America and abroad to change their thinking?

Maher is equally well-known for his snarkiness and for getting the last word, so I will allow him to close: “So here’s my final plea to you liberal-in-the-truest-sense-of-the-word-college students not just at Berkeley but all over the country, please, weigh in on this, my reputation isn’t on the line, yours is.”