USC students protest cancellation of valedictorian's speech

USC students protest cancellation of valedictorian’s speech

Asna Tabassum was not allowed to deliver her speech following complaints she supported antisemitic views online
/ 01:55 AM April 19, 2024

USC Speech canceled

Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California on Thursday, April 18, 2024. USC was citing security concerns, in a rare decision that was praised by several pro-Israel groups and lambasted by free speech advocates and the country’s largest Muslim civil rights organization. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

LOS ANGELES – Several hundred students marched through the USC campus Thursday to protest the university’s decision not to allow its chosen
valedictorian to deliver a speech during the May 10 commencement ceremonies.

USC Provost Andrew Guzman announced Monday that Asna Tabassum would still serve as valedictorian, but would not be allowed to speak during the ceremony, following complaints and some threats received by the university contending she supported antisemitic views online.

Asna Tabassum

USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum said she was “surprised that my own university – my home for four years – has abandoned me.”

The decision was met with derision from groups including the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Los Angeles. 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.

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Early Thursday afternoon, hundreds of students gathered near the Tommy Trojan statue on the USC campus then began marching through the university grounds in protest. One student told ABC7 the group was asking for “clarity” and “understanding” of the reasoning behind the university’s decision. One student says she belongs to a Muslim student group, and the organization never received any advance notice from the university “about their decision to silence our valedictorian.”

There were no reports of any arrests or disturbances stemming from the march.

Guzman, in a message to the USC community Monday, insisted the decision was strictly based on safety and security concerns.


“While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety,” Guzman wrote. “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.”

Critics of Tabassum raised questions about views relating to the conflict in the Middle East she has posted online. In letters sent to USC administrators, critics accused her of posting on a social media account a link to a website that “takes a swinging bat at over 10% of the USC student body and mudslings by calling Zionists `racist-settlers.”’


“Ms. Tabassum unabashedly and openly endorses the link’s calls for `the complete abolishment of the state of israel (sic),”’ according to a letter circulated for critics to submit to administrators. “As if the unqualified command for abolition of the State of Israel was unclear in any way, Ms. Tabassum’s link reinforces racism with another link, urging readers to `reject the hegemonic efforts to demand that Palestinians accept that Israel has a right to exist as a . . .  Jewish state.”’

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.”

In a statement Thursday, ACLU of Southern California staff attorney Mohammad Tajsar said the university has had no problem arranging security for other high-profile speeches.

“If the university can accommodate speeches by Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos and host President Obama and the kind of Jordan at its graduations, surely it can bear whatever burden comes with celebrating Asna Tabassum as its valedictorian,” Tajsar said. (CNS)

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TAGS: free speech, USC
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