Citing safety, USC cancels speech by valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The University of Southern California has canceled a commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian, a Muslim student who has expressed support for Palestinians, citing “substantial” security risks for the event that draws 65,000 people to campus.

Andrew T. Guzman, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs for the private university in Los Angeles, said in a statement Monday that the debate over the selection of the 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 wrote.

Valedictorian Asna Tabassum, who is graduating with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in resistance to genocide, said she was blindsided by the decision, in a statement provided Tuesday by the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. She said university officials on Monday told her that the school had the resources to take appropriate safety measures but they were concerned about their image.

“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, however, she added that she was not aware of any specific threats against her or the university.

“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,” she said. “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.”

In his statement, Guzman asserted that the decision was solely about safety and USC’s obligation to protect the campus community.

“To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech,” Guzman wrote. “There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

While Guzman did not specify whether there had been threats made targeting the commencement speech, he said “we cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses.”

The decision was condemned by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“USC cannot hide its cowardly decision behind a disingenuous concern for ‘security,'” the organization’s executive director, Hussam Ayloush, said in a statement.

The selection of Tabassum as valedictorian had drawn criticism from on- and off-campus groups including Trojans for Israel, which criticized her for “antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

The organization EndJewHatred issued a press release Monday night praising USC’s decision.

“Ms. Tabassum’s speech as valedictorian was anticipated to be harmful to Jewish students and even potentially agitate anti-Jewish activists,” the organization said.

Tabassum said she loves her school and wanted to use the speech to inspire hope: “I am a proud Trojan who loves my campus that has enabled me to go from building a walker to shipping medical gowns to Ukraine to writing about the Rwandan Genocide to taking blood pressure measurements for our neighbors in Skid Row,” referring to an area of Los Angeles known for its large homeless encampments.

“By canceling my speech, USC is only caving to fear and rewarding hatred,” she said.

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Watson reported from San Diego.

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