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USC cuts pro-Palestinian valedictorian's speech over safety concerns

The university said the decision "has nothing to do with freedom of speech," but the student and advocacy groups say it's a silencing.
USC cuts pro-Palestinian valedictorian's speech over safety concerns
Posted at 6:41 PM, Apr 16, 2024

The University of Southern California canceled a commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians, citing security concerns for the rare decision that has been praised by several pro-Israel groups and lambasted by free speech advocates and the country's largest Muslim civil rights organization.

Andrew T. Guzman, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs for the private university in Los Angeles, said in a statement Monday that debate over the selection of valedictorian Asna Tabassum to give the May 10 commencement speech took on an "alarming tenor." Her speech would have presented "substantial" security risks for the event that draws 65,000 people to campus, he said.

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

"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.

The Israel-Hamas war has presented a challenge for colleges under pressure to preserve free speech and open debate. Campuses are expected to be particularly tested as commencement speeches get underway across the United States.

Universities should resist canceling events that could be perceived as censorship, especially one as high-profile as a commencement speech, said Zach Greenberg, a First Amendment attorney with the national Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE. But, if they do, schools must be transparent and specify security concerns "not only as a matter of integrity" but also to warn the public for their own safety, he said.

He expressed concern about other schools buckling to pressure and eroding free speech.

"This is kind of an opening salvo of commencement season," he said. "It seems to be a pretty clear example of a university canceling an event and censoring a student because of opposition to student views, especially on social media regarding the Gaza conflict."

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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. University officials on Monday told her that the school had the resources to take appropriate safety measures but they were concerned about their image, she said.

"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, adding though 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 came after consulting the "expert campus safety team." USC's associate senior vice president of safety and risk assurance, Erroll G. Southers, is an expert in school violence prevention and a former FBI agent who is also president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian board that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department.

"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."

The university announced its decision the same day pro-Palestinian demonstrators blocked roadways in Illinois, California, New York and the Pacific Northwest, temporarily shutting down travel into some of the nation's most heavily used airports, onto the Golden Gate and Brooklyn bridges and on a busy West Coast highway to demand an immediate cease-fire in the war.

SEE MORE: Pro-Palestinian demonstrators block traffic to Chicago O'Hare Airport

University campuses have been a hotbed of protest activity surrounding the Israel-Hamas war, which began following Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people. Israel's responding assault on Gaza has killed as many as 33,800 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

The organization EndJewHatred issued a press release Monday night praising USC's decision to cancel the speech.

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

The Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the cancellation.

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

Tabassum, describing herself as a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim, said her speech aimed to inspire hope in troubled times.

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

She said she loves her school and noted that her minor, resistance to genocide "is anchored by the Shoah Foundation," the USC-headquartered project founded by Steven Spielberg to document and preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors.

"As your class Valedictorian, I implore my USC classmates to think outside the box— to work towards a world where cries for equality and human dignity are not manipulated to be expressions of hatred," she said. "I challenge us to respond to ideological discomfort with dialogue and learning, not bigotry and censorship. And I urge us to see past our deepest fears and recognize the need to support justice for all people, including the Palestinian people."

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