Pro-Palestinian valedictorian barred from speaking at USC graduation over safety concerns

Pro-Palestinian valedictorian barred from speaking at USC graduation over safety concerns

The University of Southern California has announced that its 2024 valedictorian will no longer give an address at next month’s commencement ceremony due to security concerns amid the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Asna Tabassum, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student from Chino Hills, California, was set to give a speech at the ceremony on 10 May.

However, on Monday USC announced that “discussion related to the section of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor”. This had resulted in “substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement” a news release said.

Valedictorian is the academic title conferred upon the highest-ranked student among those graduating from an educational institution, typically based on the highest grade point average.

As well as her stellar academic record, Ms Tabassum was noted for having engaged in multiple community outreach and non-profit organisations during her time at USC, including helping to send medical supplies to Turkey, Syria and Ukraine.

In her social media bio, she also includes a link to a pro-Palestinian website. She describes herself as a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim.

The news release from USC stated that “the intensity of feelings” surrounding the ongoing war, sparked by the 7 October attack by Hamas on Israel had “escalated” to the point of creating security risk at the upcoming commencement ceremony.

“Unfortunately, over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor,” the release stated.

“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. We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses.”

It continued: “As always, and particularly when tensions are running so high across the world, we must prioritize the safety of our community.

“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 added that “tradition must give way to safety” and that it had been decided that Ms Tabassum would not be giving a speech at the ceremony.

“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,” the statement added.

USC’s decision has been met with outrage from advocacy groups, including CAIR Greater Los Angeles, who said it “empowers voices of hate” and violated the university’s obligation to protect its students

In a statement released via the Council on American–Islamic Relations, Ms Tabassum said she felt “profoundly disappointed” and “abandoned” by USC – “my home of four years”.

“I am honored to have been selected as USC Class of 2024 Valedictorian. Although this should have been a time of celebration for my family, friends, professors, and classmates, 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,” she said.

“This campaign to prevent me from addressing my peers at commencement has evidently accomplished its goal… 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.”