USC Sparks Backlash After Canceling Valedictorian’s Speech

Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The University of Southern California (USC) faces backlash from the country’s largest Muslim civil rights group after the school announced on Monday that its valedictorian will not be allowed to speak at her commencement.

Asna Tabassum, a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim biomedical engineering major, with a minor in genocide studies, was told by USC officials that the university would not accommodate her valedictory speech, after unprecedented threats were levied towards her and the institution.

In an email to students and faculty explaining the decision, USC Provost Andrew Guzman said discussion over her appointment took on an “alarming tenor,” and had “escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.”

“After careful consideration, we have decided that our student valedictorian will not deliver a speech at commencement,” Guzman wrote, adding that “tradition must give way to safety.”

“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 email said.

Before the announcement, Tabassum’s social media presence had been the subject of some on-campus scrutiny, because she included a link on her Instagram page which said “one Palestinian state” would require “the complete abolishment of the state of Israel,” and described Zionism as a “racist settler-colonial ideology.”

On Saturday, a Zionist campus organization called Trojans for Israel, denounced Tabassum’s selection as valedictorian, calling the language in the materials “antisemitic bigotry.” Several other campus organizations called for the university to reconsider her selection. She told NBC Los Angeles that she had posted the link five years ago, and the university said her social media presence was not a factor in their decision making.

Tabassum responded to the decision in a statement released by the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), writing that she had “serious doubts” about whether the university’s decision was made “solely on the basis of safety.”

She wrote that she had been subjected to a campaign of “racist hatred” from “anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim voices,” to prevent her from speaking at the university’s commencement, but had not been made aware of the details of those threats.

Tabassum wrote that she was told that the university had the resources to protect her, but would not do so because it was not in line with what USC wants to “present as an image.”

“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,” she wrote. She added that the university was “caving to fear and rewarding hatred.”

The director of the Los Angeles office of the CAIR, Hussam Ayloush, condemned the university’s decision to revoke her valedictory speech, and called for USC to reverse its decision.

“USC cannot hide its cowardly decision behind a disingenuous concern for ‘security,’” said Ayloush.

The decision “empowers voices of hate and censorship, violates USC’s obligation to protect its students and sends a terrible signal to both Muslim students at USC and all students who dare to express support for Palestinian humanity,” he added.

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