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Citing safety concerns, USC cancels pro-Palestinian valedictorian’s graduation speech

Asna Tabassum, a graduating senior at USC, was selected as valedictorian.
Asna Tabassum, a graduating senior at USC, was selected as valedictorian and offered a traditional slot to speak at the 2024 graduation. After on- and off-campus groups criticized the decision and the university said it received threats, it pulled her from the graduation speakers schedule.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
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Saying “tradition must give way to safety,” USC on Monday made the unprecedented move of canceling the upcoming graduation speech of an undergraduate valedictorian who has come under fire for her pro-Palestinian views.

The move, according to USC officials, is the first time the university has kept a valedictorian from the traditional chance to speak onstage at the annual commencement ceremony, which typically draws more than 65,000 people to the Los Angeles campus.

In a campuswide letter, USC Provost Andrew T. Guzman cited unnamed threats that have poured in shortly after the university publicized the valedictorian’s name and biography this month. Guzman said attacks against the student for her pro-Palestinian views have reached an “alarming tenor” and “escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement” in May.

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“After careful consideration, we have decided that our student valedictorian will not deliver a speech at commencement. ... There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period,” Guzman wrote.

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The student, whom the letter does not name, is biomedical engineering major Asna Tabassum. USC officials chose Tabassum from nearly 100 student applicants who had GPAs of 3.98 or higher.

But after USC President Carol Folt announced her selection, a swarm of on- and off-campus groups attacked Tabassum. They targeted her minor, resistance to genocide, as well as her pro-Palestinian views and “likes” expressed through her Instagram account.

We Are Tov, a group that uses the Hebrew word for “good” and describes itself as “dedicated to combating antisemitism,” posted Tabassum’s image on its Instagram account and said she “openly promotes antisemitic writings.” The group also criticized Tabassum for liking Instagram posts from another group, Trojans for Palestine. Tabassum’s Instagram bio links to a landing page that says “learn about what’s happening in Palestine, and how to help.”

The campus group Trojans for Israel also posted on its Instagram account, calling for Folt’s “reconsideration” of Tabassum for what it described as her “antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric.” The group said Tabassum’s Instagram bio linked to a page that called Zionism a “racist settler-colonial ideology.”

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In a statement, Tabassum opposed the decision, saying USC has “abandoned” her.

“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,” said Tabassum, who is Muslim.

“This campaign to prevent me from addressing my peers at commencement has evidently accomplished its goal: today, USC administrators informed me that the university will no longer allow me to speak at commencement due to supposed security concerns,” she wrote.

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“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.”

In an interview, Guzman said the university has been “in close contact with the student” and would “provide her support.” He added that “we weren’t seeking her opinion” on the cancellation.

“This is a security decision,” he said. “This is not about the identity of the speaker, it’s not about the things the valedictorian has said in the past. We have to put as our top priority ensuring that the campus and community is safe.”

UC Berkeley professor Erwin Chemerinsky and his wife, professor Catherine Fisk, got into a heated argument with a pro-Palestinian protester during a dinner at their home.

April 11, 2024

Another campus official who was part of the decision, Erroll Southers, said threats came in via email, phone calls and letters. Southers is USC’s associate senior vice president for safety and risk assurance.

Individuals “say they will come to campus as early as this week,” Southers said. He did not elaborate.

Pro-Palestinian groups, including the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have called for USC to reinvite Tabassum to speak.

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

In another statement, the USC Palestine Justice Faculty Group said it “unequivocally rejects” Tabassum being uninvited.

“The provost’s action is another example of USC’s egregious pattern of supporting anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim racism,” the group said.

Times staff writers Jenna Peterson and Angie Orellana Hernandez contributed to this report.

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