USC Students Protest Cancellation of Pro-Palestine Valedictorian’s Speech

USC Provost Andrew T. Guzman said threats against valedictorian Asna Tabassum, a Muslim-American student, have reached an “alarming tenor.”

USC Students Protest Cancellation of Pro-Palestine Valedictorian’s Speech

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ARTICLE UPDATE 4/19/24:

Hundreds of people marched through the USC campus Thursday to protest the school’s decision to ban its valedictorian from speaking during the May 10 commencement ceremony.

Asna Tabassum, who USC officials chose as valedictorian from nearly 100 student applicants, has expressed pro-Palestinian views, including some that have led to accusations of antisemitism. The university cited safety concerns as the reason for canceling Tabassum’s speech. However, some students have noted the school has previously handled high-profile speakers who posed security challenges, according to ABC 7.

Many students and faculty members have accused the university of censorship for its decision. In a statement, Provost Andrew Guzman wrote, in part, “To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

Guzman said threats against Tabassum have reached an “alarming tenor” and “escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.” Tabassum claims her “request for the details underlying the university’s threat assessment has been denied.”

Protesters gathered near the school’s Tommy Trojan statue and marched through campus, holding signs with Tabassum’s photo and the words, “Let Asna speak.” There have been no reports of arrests or disturbances stemming from the march, The Patch reports.

Around 130 faculty members have signed a letter demanding to hear Tabassum speak at graduation, and dozens of student groups have signed a separate letter calling for a decision reversal. Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) officials said Wednesday that a petition it initiated calling for USC to reverse its decision had received 38,000 signatures within 48 hours.


ORIGINAL ARTICLE 4/17/24:

LOS ANGELES — University of Southern California (USC) officials announced Monday that its valedictorian, who has expressed pro-Palestinian views, will not be allowed to speak at the Class of 2024 commencement ceremony next month.

In a campuswide letter, Provost Andrew T. Guzman noted “tradition must give way to safety” after the school allegedly received unnamed threats after announcing Asna Tabassum, a Muslim-American biomedical engineering major and student activist, was selected as this year’s valedictorian, LA Times reports.

Guzman said attacks against Tabassum for her pro-Palestinian views have reached an “alarming tenor” and “escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.” The ceremony is expected to draw nearly 65,000 people to the California campus.

“This decision is not only necessary to maintain the safety of our campus and students, but is consistent with the fundamental legal obligation — including the expectations of federal regulators — that universities act to protect students and keep our campus community safe,” Guzman wrote. “It applies the same values and criteria that we have used in the past to guide our actions. In no way does it diminish the remarkable academic achievements of any student considered or selected for valedictorian. To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

Pro-Israel Groups Denounce USC Valedictorian Choice

The cancellation comes less than one week after Trojans for Israel, a pro-Israel group at USC, claimed Tabassum “openly traffics antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric” and that her participation would cause the ceremony to become an “unwelcoming and intolerant environment” for Jewish students.

We Are Tov, a social media advocacy group founded last year to combat antisemitism, also said last week that while Tabassum is “academically qualified,” it is “unacceptable that she promotes antisemitic views.” Both groups cited Tabassum’s social media profile, which includes a link to a site that they claim promotes antisemitic rhetoric, such as calling Zionism a “racist” ideology and advocating for the “complete abolishment” of Israel,” TIME reports.

Pro-Palestinian Groups Call for Decision Reversal

Pro-Palestinian groups, including the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA), have called for USC to reverse its decision. In a statement, CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush called the decision “cowardly” and said officials are hiding behind “a disingenuous concern for ‘security.'”

“The dishonest and defamatory attacks on Asna are nothing more than thinly-veiled manifestations of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism, which have been weaponized against college students across the country who speak up for human rights—and for Palestinian humanity,” he wrote.

In a statement, the USC Palestine Justice Faculty Group said it “unequivocally rejects” the decision, noting Guzman’s action “is another example of USC’s egregious pattern of supporting anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim racism.”

USC Valedictorian Denounces Decision

Tabassum released a statement through CAIR-LA, noting “anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices have subjected me to a campaign of racist hatred because of my uncompromising belief in human rights for all.”

“This campaign to prevent me from addressing my peers at commencement has evidently accomplished its goal: today, USC administrators informed me that the university will no longer allow me to speak at commencement due to supposed security concerns,” she wrote. “I am both shocked by this decision and profoundly disappointed that the university is succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice. I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university—my home for four years—has abandoned me.”

Tabassum also said she is doubtful that safety concerns are the reason for her speech’s cancellation “because I am not aware of any specific threats against me or the university.” She also claims her “request for the details underlying the university’s threat assessment has been denied.”

Erroll Southers, USC’s associate senior vice president for safety and risk assurance, said threats came in via email, phone calls, and letters, noting some individuals said “they would come to campus as early as this week.”

Like many other universities, USC has made headlines in the months since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. In November, the school banned Jewish economics professor John Strauss from campus after a video went viral of him confronting pro-Palestinian student protesters who were calling for a ceasefire. The ban was later removed.

Also in November, the school published a website outlining its policies on freedom of expression. On its FAQ page, the site said even statements that “may cause serious discomfort, alarm, and concern” posted on students’ social media pages “would likely be treated as protected speech if it does not include a specific threat against an individual and does not rise to the level of harassment or discrimination that the university is legally permitted to prohibit.”

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About the Author

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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