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Bill Maher's UC Berkeley speaking invitation sparks furor

BERKELEY -- The student group that selected comedian Bill Maher to be the commencement speaker at the University of California at Berkeley has attempted to rescind the invitation after student backlash over some of Maher's statements, but the university won't allow it, school officials said Wednesday.

CBS San Francisco reports that students gathered more than 4,000 signatures on a change.org petition as of this afternoon, complaining that Maher is racist against Muslims and characterizes Islam as a violent religion.

The student group called the Californians, which organizes school events, initially invited Maher to speak at the Dec. 20 commencement but the school has the final say over the speaker.

According to the university, the Californians attempted to take back the invitation in response to the petition.

"The UC Berkeley administration cannot and will not accept this decision, which appears to have been based solely on Mr. Maher's opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech," university officials said.

University Chancellor Nicholas Dirks "looks forward to welcoming Mr. Maher to the Berkeley campus," the statement said.

Graduating senior Taliah Mirmalek, 20, who has been participating in organizing against Maher's appearance said today that she does not think students should be forced to listen to Maher speak if they think he is prejudiced against their religion.

The commencement address is different than a lecture, she said, where students have the option to leave without abandoning a milestone in their lives.

"Suddenly you have to think about whether Bill Maher will make a statement like 'Arab men or dogs' or 'Muslims are inherently violent'," she said.

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In this Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, image released by HBO, host Bill Maher, right, and actor Ben Affleck, left, look on as Sam Harris, author of "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion", speaks during "Real Time With Bill Maher," in Los Angeles. AP Photo/HBO

The change.org petition lists numerous quotes that the students objected to including, "Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia that will f---- kill you if you say the wrong thing," which Maher said in a recent heated exchange with actor Ben Affleck on his show.

The petition also quotes Maher as saying, "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."

Maher said on Twitter Wednesday that he would address the controversy on Friday's edition of "Real Time With Bill Maher."

Mirmalek, a Muslim studying political science who is a member of the university's Muslim Student Association, said that she doesn't object to criticism of Islam but thinks that Maher's statements about Islam feed into a national narrative that Muslims are inherently violent.

"It's not criticism or questioning anything that's a problem," she said. "The problem is Bill Maher's statements about Islam are huge generalizations and suggesting things about the innate nature of Muslims."

"It's a form of cultural racism where you're making a statement that every person who identifies with this faith is violent," she said.

The administration's statement said that while it did not endorse Maher's statements, it supported his right to say them.

"The administration's position on Mr. Maher's opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them," university officials said.

"More broadly, this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative," it said.

The university will be making changes to the procedures in securing commencement speakers in response to the controversy, officials said.

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