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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

'My Own University... Has Abandoned Me': USC Cancels Muslim Valedictorian's Speech

"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," student Asna Tabassum said in a statement.


By Olivia Rosane, Common Dreams


In a decision that the largest U.S. Muslim civil rights organization called "cowardly," the University of Southern California announced Monday that it would not allow a Muslim valedictorian to speak at its commencement ceremony, citing safety concerns.


USC's 2024 valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, is a first-generation South Asian Muslim student majoring in biomedical engineering with a minor in resistance to genocide. Her selection as valedictorian drew criticism from pro-Israel groups because of a link pasted into her Instagram profile that advocates for a single Palestinian state where "both Arabs and Jews can live together without an ideology that specifically advocates for the ethnic cleansing of one of them."


"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," Tabassum said in a statement. "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," Tabassum continued. "I am surprised that my own university—my home for four years—has abandoned me."


In announcing the university's decision, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs Andrew Guzman said that, in recent days, "discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor."


Several groups had called for Tabassum's removal as valedictorian entirely because they argued the link that she shared, a slideshow titled "Free Palestine," was antisemitic.


"Trojans for Israel strongly supports the right to free expression—including informed criticism of the Israeli government. However, rhetoric that denies the right of the Jewish people to self-determination or calls for the destruction of the only Jewish state in the world must be denounced as antisemitic bigotry," a campus group wrote in a social media post calling on USC to choose a new valedictorian.


The slideshow Tabassum shared includes a page explaining that anti-zionism is not antisemitism and linking to a debate on the topic featuring former MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan and Israeli-Jewish historian Ilan Pappé.


Tabassum told NBC Los Angeles that she had added the link to her Instagram bio five years ago—long before Hamas' deadly October 7 attack on Israel and Israel's ongoing genocide in Gaza—and that she had not written the text herself.


However, Israel's current war on Gaza has led to widespread campus protests at U.S. universities, as well as repression of pro-Palestinian student groups and national attention on university leaders' responses to the conflict, which has led to the resignation of at least two high-profile university presidents.


"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 said in the university announcement. "We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses."


Guzman continued that he had spoken with the university's Department of Public Safety and campus security teams.


"After careful consideration, we have decided that our student valedictorian will not deliver a speech at commencement," Guzman said. "While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety."


The provost maintained that this was not a free speech issue.


"There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement," Guzman said. "The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period."


However, in her statement, Tabassum said that she attended a meeting with the provost and the associate senior vice president of safety and risk on Sunday, during which they told her that campus security would be able to protect her from any threats while speaking, but that taking appropriate measures would result in a commencement ceremony that was not what the university wants to "'present as an image.'"


"Because I am not aware of any specific threats against me or the university, because my request for the details underlying the university's threat assessment has been denied, and because I am not being provided any increased safety to be able to speak at commencement, there remain serious doubts about whether USC's decision to revoke my invitation to speak is made solely on the basis of safety," Tabassum said.


Council on American-Islamic Relations-Los Angeles (CAIR-LA) executive director Hussam Ayloush also cast doubt on the university's motives in a statement.


"USC cannot hide its cowardly decision behind a disingenuous concern for 'security,'" Ayloush said. "Asna is an incredibly accomplished student whose academic and extracurricular accomplishments made her the ideal and historic recipient of this year's valedictorian's honor. The university can, should, and must ensure a safe environment for graduation rather than taking the unprecedented step of cancelling a valedictorian's speech."


"The dishonest and defamatory attacks on Asna are nothing more than thinly-veiled manifestations of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism, which have been weaponized against college students across the country who speak up for human rights—and for Palestinian humanity," Ayloush continued.


Earlier this month, CAIR released its 2024 civil rights report, stating the organization received more complaints of anti-Muslim bias than during any other year in its three decades of existence.


Ayloush argued that USC's decision to cancel Tabassum's speech "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."


Washington Post columnist and Columbia adjunct Karen Attiah also saw the university's decision as a setback for academic freedom.


"What is happening at USC shows that the credibility/legitimacy of many liberal institutions died in Gaza," Attiah wrote on social media. "Western journalistic objectivity died in Gaza. True academic freedom died in Gaza. Do we see how much violence it takes to uphold an imperial status quo?"


Writer and editor Tom Gara called out the university for the discrepancy between its actions and its course offerings.


"Incredible story. USC offers a minor in 'resistance to genocide,' this girl minored in it, was named valedictorian, and then they cancelled her speech because she might talk about genocide," Gara said on social media.


CAIR-LA is calling on USC to reverse its decision and circulating a petition in support of this demand.


Tabassum, meanwhile, addressed her fellow students.


"As your class valedictorian, I implore my USC classmates to think outside the box—to work toward 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."


Olivia Rosane is a staff writer for Common Dreams.


This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.


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