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USC cancels pro-Palestinian valedictorian speech over security concerns


The University of Southern California has sparked condemnation from a leading Muslim group after it canceled a planned commencement speech by its valedictorian, citing security concerns due to tensions over “the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.”

Asna Tabassum said she was told Monday that she would no longer be able to give a speech as she and other graduates at the Los Angeles university are celebrated on May 10.

“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,” Tabassum said in a statement released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. 

USC Provost Andrew Guzman said in an announcement Monday that “over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian 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 said.

At least two pro-Israel and Jewish groups complained to USC about the choice, pointing to her social media activity. 

Tabassum’s Instagram account links to a slideshow encouraging people to “learn about what’s happening in palestine, and how to help.” It calls for “one palestinian state,” which it says “would mean palestinian liberation, and the complete abolishment of the state of israel.” 

Trojans for Israel said this “must be denounced as antisemitic bigotry.”

Tabassum said she added that link on her social media account five years ago and was not the author, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Tabassum is a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim from Chino Hills, a city east of Los Angeles, she said in her personal statement about USC’s decision. She is a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in resistance to genocide.

Tabassum said that in her studies and in her life, she “learned that ordinary people are capable of unspeakable acts of violence when they are taught hate fueled by fear.”

“And due to widespread fear, I was hoping to use my commencement speech to inspire my classmates with a message of hope,” she said. “By canceling my speech, USC is only caving to fear and rewarding hatred.”

Tabassum was selected by a committee out of almost 100 applicants for valedictorian, who applied based on their “perfect or near-perfect GPAs,” Guzman said. 

“The committee assessed each application based on various criteria — which did not include social media presence — and made a recommendation to me,” the provost continued. “Based on these faculty recommendations, I made the final decision.”

Tabassum in her statement also claimed that in a meeting Sunday, “I asked about the alleged safety concerns and was told that the University had the resources to take appropriate safety measures for my valedictory speech, but that they would not be doing so since increased security protections is not what the University wants to ‘present as an image.’”

A university spokesperson said of the claim: “It’s not accurate.”

The Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas against Israel, and the war Israel has waged against Hamas in Gaza as a response, have generated strong feelings on college campuses across the country, including allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia

Guzman, in his announcement about the change, did not single out any website or side of the conflict in saying that the valedictorian would not give a speech as originally planned.

He wrote that there has been harassment and even violence on other campuses, and he denied the issue had anything to do with freedom of speech.

“There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement,” he wrote. “The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

Canceling the speech is “disappointing,” he said, but “tradition must give way to safety.”

The Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, condemned the cancellation.

“USC cannot hide its cowardly decision behind a disingenuous concern for ‘security,’” CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush said in a statement.

“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,” Ayloush said.

The commencement event will celebrate 19,000-plus graduates and is expected to draw around 65,000 people to the campus in the University Park section of Los Angeles, according to USC. 


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