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Debra J. Saunders
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Trying to Silence Bill Maher in the Cradle of Free Speech

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"The students at the University of California at Berkeley represent a diverse array of students from all walks of life," begins the student petition. Somehow you just know that before the end, the document will demand that the administration muzzle someone — for the sake of diversity. The spirit of far-left censors trumps exposure to novel ideas. Hence the petition, titled "Stop Bill Maher from speaking at UC Berkeley's December graduation."

"It is the responsibility of the University of California to protect all students and uphold a standard of civility," quoth the petition, which has gathered more than 4,000 signatures. Protect students from a comedian? O brave new university that has such delicate flowers in it.

The petition labels the comedian a "blatant bigot and racist" because of his inflammatory remarks on Islam. "It's the only religion," Maher recently quipped on his HBO show, "Real Time," "that acts like the Mafia, that will f—-ing kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book." Given the fact that there have been fatwas against critics of Islam — think Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Danish cartoonists and novelist Salman Rushdie — Maher has a few facts on his side. That said, his decision to frame an entire religion based on its most extreme adherents is not constructive.

I wouldn't call Maher a racist. I'd call him a boor. He wouldn't be my choice to speak at a commencement. But he was the choice of the Californians, the student group that picks commencement speakers.

Enter Berkeley's speech police. The Daily Californian reports that student senator Marium Navid formed a group, Free Speech, Not Hate Speech.

In the course of her education, Navid apparently has not learned that one person's free speech is another person's hate speech — or that when you try to silence others, that's not free speech.

To defend their intolerant bent, groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations concoct rationales for working to block others from hearing the other side. Spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told me his group would not oppose Maher's speaking before a group of students; it might protest the event, but that's speech, too. This invitation is different, Hooper argued, as it is an honor and an endorsement. "It's the same situation with Hirsi Ali." After Brandeis University invited Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree, Hooper continued, "we didn't object to Hirsi Ali speaking at Brandeis. We objected to Brandeis honoring Hirsi Ali." To its undying shame, Brandeis rescinded its invitation.

In the one sphere where the far left is ascendant, it will use its power ruthlessly to club dissent. It almost worked. On Wednesday, the administration sent out an announcement that the students who invited Maher had rescinded the invitation. To his credit, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced his administration "cannot and will not accept this decision," as it was based on Maher's "opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech."

I never thought I would see the day when college administrators — at Berkeley, no less — showed more respect for free expression than university students, who should need no protection from opposing views. Dirks did academia proud. As for those students who tried to muzzle Maher and the gutless ones who caved in to their tactics, I don't know what they learned in the course of their expensive education.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com. To find out more about Debra J. Saunders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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