December 4, 2014

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Context Matters

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To the Editor:

Re: “THROWDOWN THURSDAY: Freedom From Speech At Berkeley,” Opinion, Dec. 4.

Crafting a hard-hitting but true criticism requires a complete and honest handling of the subject’s facts, and in “Freedom From Speech At Berkeley,” Julius Kairey ’15 fails in this regard. The article ignores facts which drastically alter the analysis.

Berkeley has not invited Mr. Bill Maher for a unilateral speech or debate. The forum here is a commencement speech. Commencement speeches have a specific purpose — to congratulate the class. They mark the completion of college and provide insight of the world ahead. They are, simply put, a day for the graduates.

Julius states “larger share[s] of the student bodies of universities … want their schools to be “safe spaces” where those who hold positions they disagree with are kept out. These students are far more interested in using political correctness to silence beliefs they disagree with then having an honest debate.” But this situation is not a debate. Bill Maher is not coming to campus to discuss his opinion on religion, climate change or anything else. He is coming to campus to congratulate and impart wisdom on the graduating class.

Berkeley graduates are petitioning chiefly because of Maher’s views on Islam. They feel his statements are filled with hate and bigotry and are a personal attack on their identity. Some of Maher’s statement which lead to this backlash include: “Talk to women who’ve ever dated an Arab man. The results are not good,” and “The Muslim world has too much in common with ISIS.” Julius conveniently ignores these statements. With statements like these, it is not unreasonable for graduates to feel objectified by these comments, whether on an objective or a subjective level. This day of commencement is for the graduates and the graduates alone. They should not need to feel like they are being attacked on this day, whether rightly or wrongly so.

If the students of Berkeley had petitioned to have Maher banned from being a guest of a debate or giving any topic-specific speech, I would agree with Julius. The fact is that no one petitioning to have the invitation of commencement speaker revoked is saying they want to ban Maher from speaking in any form on the campus. They are simply saying that this is not the time or place. To forget the purpose of the event is to misunderstand the position.

When Columbia University invited former Iranian President Ahmadinejad to speak at their annual World Leaders Forum, many people were outraged. I disagree with that criticism as I, like Julius, believe that good ideas will stand up to the scrutiny of criticism and logic, while bad ideas are killed through exposition of their logical fallacies. This is why I supported Columbia. Had President Ahmadinejad been invited to be the speaker of that year’s commencement speech, I would not have felt the same way. I would not welcome this invitation. Time and place matter. Context matters. This day is for the graduates and they feel threatened by Maher. This is not a freedom of speech issue.

Ralph Labaton grad

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