USC bans pro-Palestinian valedictorian from speaking at May commencement, citing safety concerns

The Daily Trojan said this comes less than one week after a pro-Israel group accused Asna Tabassum of being antisemitic.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024
Citing safety concerns, USC scrubs valedictorian's commencement speech
This will be the 141st commencement ceremony at USC and the first time the university has banned the valedictorian from speaking.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Citing safety concerns, USC announced Monday that a pro-Palestinian undergraduate student who was selected as valedictorian will not be allowed to give a speech at the May commencement ceremony, the first time the university has banned the valedictorian from speaking.

"While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety,'' Provost Andrew Guzman wrote in a message to the university community. "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.

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.''

Asna Tabassum, a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in "resistance to genocide," had been previously announced as this year's valedictorian. However, critics raised questions about views relating to the conflict in the Middle East she has posted online.

The Daily Trojan reports that the cancellation comes less than one week after a pro-Israel group accused Tabassum of being antisemitic.

Immediately following Guzman's announcement, the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Los Angeles issued a statement demanding that the decision be reversed and that Tabassum be permitted to speak.

Tabassum released a statement through CAIR-LA, saying "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 said. "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.''

CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush called the USC decision "cowardly'' and the reasoning "disingenuous.''

"Asna is an incredibly accomplished student whose academic and extracurricular accomplishments made her the ideal and historic recipient of this year's valedictorian's honor,'' Ayloush said in a statement. "The university can, should and must ensure a safe environment for graduation rather than taking the unprecedented step of cancelling a valedictorian's speech.

"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.''

Guzman, in his campus message, said the uproar over the valedictorian selection has taken on "an alarming tenor.''

"The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement,'' Guzman wrote. "We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses.

"As always, and particularly when tensions are running so high across the world, we must prioritize the safety of our community,'' he said. "And as we do every year, we have been monitoring our commencement security needs based on all the information we have and the facts on the ground. Our (Department of Public Safety) and expert campus safety team are uniquely prepared to evaluate potential threats, and we have consulted with them about the current situation, taking into account everything we know about our reality, as well as the unprecedented risks we are seeing at other campuses and across the world. We are resolute in our commitment to maintain and prioritize the existing safety and well-being of our USC community during the coming weeks, and allowing those attending commencement to focus on the celebration our graduates deserve.''

USC students speak out

Students who spoke with Eyewitness News on Monday believe groups homed in on Tabassum once she was bestowed with the valedictorian honor.

"I think people went too far with, like, stalking things she had been liking, and kind of like, trolling her on social media, I don't think she deserved that," said Jaela Bard, who disagrees with the university's decision.

Student Avi Pandit believes Tabassum should "fully have the right" to speak.

"She has earned it, 100%, being valedictorian at USC is no joke. Just because she believes something, or posts something online, doesn't take her right away from free speech," he said.

USC's decision has reverberated throughout campus, and some graduating seniors say students are already thinking about what they will do at the commencement ceremony.

"It's a really polarizing issue," said USC senior Amir Bell. "Some kids have already said, like, 'Oh, I'm going to wear a pin or something,' but it's really polarizing, and it's really consumed our campus."

ABC News and City News Service, Inc. contributed to this report.