I Do Not Think That Means What He Thinks It Means – Bill Maher and Free Speech

This is almost old news at this point, but it still bears commenting on.  Bill Maher has no idea what “Freedom of Speech” means.  Like many of the pundits he criticizes, he thinks that anyone choosing not to listen to him is impinging upon his rights, rather than exercising their own.

First, some background:  Bill Maher made some comments on his show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” disparaging Muslims.  He was joined by fellow atheist and Muslim-basher Sam Harris, and the two proceeded to claim that all Muslims believe the same things that extremist terrorist groups do, and therefore, all Muslims are evil and violent.  His panel (other than Harris) disagreed, with actor Ben Affleck most vocally objecting:

This exchange naturally garnered a lot of media attention, largely due to Affleck’s celebrity, as Maher himself later noted.  But, in reality, this particular argument differed little from Maher’s usual opinions of Islam as a religion and of the Muslims who practice it.  He has regularly demonized them as being violent, ignoring the fact that the terrorist groups he cites as his example represent a minuscule fraction of the entire Muslim population of well over a billion people worldwide.

But, this additional attention to Maher’s views on Muslims led some students at the University of California to petition to cancel a planned appearance by Maher at their winter commencement ceremony.  Of course, Maher was outraged, arguing that this constituted a violation of his freedom of speech:

To defend himself, Maher referenced comments made during a HuffPost Live interview with Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and author.

 “Bill Maher’s not a bigot. I know him,” Aslan said on HuffPost Live.

“If even my most respectable critic who’s a Muslim says this, what leg does this protest have to stand on?” Maher asked during Friday’s episode of “Real Time” on HBO. “He and I disagree on stuff but he’s always welcome on the show. That’s how it’s done, kids!”

Ignoring the ridiculousness of his defense and its similarity to the “some of my best friends are black” defense offered by many accused racists, Maher is missing the larger point.  It doesn’t matter if he’s a bigot or not (though I would argue he is), and it doesn’t matter if his argument is correct or not (though I would argue it isn’t).  What matters is that he is not entitled to speak at a commencement ceremony and the possible retraction of an invitation for him to do so is not a violation of his freedom of speech.

Journalist Rula Jebreal offered a detailed takedown of Maher’s position regarding Muslims on the same episode of his show in which he called out the Berkeley students (and later in an interview with Salon):

But, as convincing as she was, Maher was unfazed.  He continued to argue that the facts were in his favor.  His belief is based largely on a single poll reporting that a majority of Muslims in Arab countries said that execution is a proper punishment for those choosing to leave the religion.  Aside from the flaws in basing an argument on a single poll, it must be recognized that any poll like this is inherently flawed itself.  Just like polling in this country says that most people go to church every week despite evidence to the contrary, it is only natural that a poll about religious belief in countries ruled by extremist Muslim governments would show respondents agreeing with even the most extreme tenets of that religion, whether they actually believe them or not.  Of course, it is entirely possible that most Muslims do in fact think all heathens should be executed, but it’s not very likely.

However, this argument over the validity of Maher’s position misses the larger point.  No one is limiting his freedom of speech.  He has not been silenced or arrested or punished.  On the contrary, he has a television show which allows him to say whatever he would like to an audience of millions.  His opinion is not being muted, it is being amplified.  And, the students at Berkeley have no obligation to offer him yet another venue for disseminating his beliefs.  In fact, they are free to voice their disagreement with him and tell him that he is not welcome.  To paraphrase Maher, that’s how it’s done.

Maher likes to argue in regards to another section of the First Amendment that freedom of religion is also freedom from religion.  The same applies to speech.  Maher is free to say whatever he likes, and everyone else is free not to listen.  I can’t stop him from voicing his opinion, but I don’t have to invite him into my house.  That is how the First Amendment actually works.  But, Maher disagrees:

Maher noted the irony students at Cal wanted to uninvite someone based on comments they made, given that this year is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus.

“I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore,” Maher said.

And, apparently, they didn’t teach the First Amendment at Cornell, where Maher studied.

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