When protesters mobilize against an invited university guest, they are not merely expressing disapprobation of a selection. They are threatening the university with embarrassment or worse unless the university yields to their wishes. It’s the university, not the speaker, who is their target. What they want from the university is not the right to be heard, but the right to veto. More exactly: These battles over campus speakers are not battles over rights at all. They are battles over power.
The anti-Maher protesters explicitly demanded this power for themselves: “Do not force us to tolerate the speaker that you selected, without our input, for our event. We demand the power for students to choose the commencement speakers and to reject the university administration’s suggestions.” But as a matter of fact, Berkeley students do choose their own commencements speakers. Invitations are issued by the elected leadership of a student society whose membership is open to all Berkeley students in good academic standing. The Maher protesters wished to over-ride this process—and to claim for their own pressure group the unique right to speak for all Berkeley students.
When small and zealous factions—which may include students, but also may not—assert a right of control over the university’s public spaces, their target is the university itself. Berkeley’s anti-Maher protesters surely understand that barring the highly popular TV host from their commencement ceremony would hardly silence him. Maher will continue to command a large and enthusiastic following—maybe larger and more enthusiastic than ever. What they would have done, had they succeeded, was write new rules for the university itself: rules about what may be said, who may say it, and who decides. The power they were seeking was not power over Bill Maher, but power over a university—a power to be exercised arbitrarily by small, shifting cabals.