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USC cancels Muslim valedictorian’s commencement speech, citing safety concerns

"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," said Chino Hills resident Asna Tabassum.

Victoria Ivie
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USC administrators have banned the university’s class of 2024 valedictorian, who is Muslim and South Asian, from speaking at its , citing safety concerns over her pro-Palestinian views that some have criticized as antisemitic.

Asna Tabassum, a Chino Hills resident who , reacted harshly to the decision, saying she was both shocked and “profoundly disappointed that the university is succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

In a statement, Tabassum said she was “not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university — my home for four years — has abandoned me.”

  • Asna Tabassum, USC’s class of 2024 valedictorian and a first-generation,...

    Asna Tabassum, USC’s class of 2024 valedictorian and a first-generation, South Asian American Muslim, was previously announced as the school’s valedictorian, giving a speech at its Friday, May 10 commencement. But on April 15, officials backtracked the decision, citing safety issues after pro-Israel groups expressed concerns over Tabassum’s alleged antisemitic views. (Photo courtesy of Enjy El-Kadi, CAIR-LA)

  • Asna Tabassum, USC’s class of 2024 valedictorian and a first-generation,...

    Asna Tabassum, USC’s class of 2024 valedictorian and a first-generation, South Asian American Muslim, was previously announced as the school’s valedictorian, giving a speech at its Friday, May 10 commencement. But on April 15, officials backtracked the decision, citing safety issues after pro-Israel groups expressed concerns over Tabassum’s alleged antisemitic views. (Photo courtesy of Enjy El-Kadi, CAIR-LA)

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In on Monday, April 15, however, USC Provost Andrew Guzman said “discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor” in the past several days.

“The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the , 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. “We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses. … As always, and particularly when tensions are running so high across the world, we must prioritize the safety of our community.”

Guzman continued, “While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety. This decision is not only necessary to maintain the safety of our campus and students, but is consistent with the fundamental legal obligation — including the expectations of federal regulators — that universities act to protect students and keep our campus community safe. … The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

This is the first time USC has canceled a valedictorian’s speech, according to reports.

Tabassum, a biomedical engineering major with a minor in resistance to genocide, was earlier this month. Since then, critics swiftly raised questions about Tabassum’s views relating to the that she shared online. Opponents say her posts promoted “antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric.”

In letters and emails sent to USC administrators, critics accused her of posting on her Instagram bio that “takes a swinging bat at over 10% of the USC student body and mudslings by calling Zionists ‘racist-settlers.’ “

“Ms. Tabassum unabashedly and openly endorses the link’s calls for ‘the complete abolishment of the state of Israel (sic),’ ” according to a letter circulated for critics to submit to administrators. “As if the unqualified command for abolition of the State of Israel was unclear in any way, Ms. Tabassum’s link reinforces racism with another link, urging readers to ‘reject the hegemonic efforts to demand that Palestinians accept that Israel has a right to exist as a … Jewish state.”‘

While not going into details about the messages against Tabassum, USC officials said the unnamed threats came in shortly after her according to reports.

Pro-Israel groups both on and off-campus accused Tabassum of “promoting antisemitic views” through shared Instagram posts, likes and infographics, according to

The student-run Trojans for Israel expressed “troubling” concerns about Tabassum, stating online that her selection “turns an inclusive and meaningful milestone (commencement) into an

Immediately following the university’s decision, the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Los Angeles (CAIR-LA) condemned USC’s actions, demanding the decision be reversed and starting a petition to urge administrators to allow  Tabassum to speak at commencement.

“The University of Southern California must stand by Asna Tabassum,” CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush said. “Even though USC has maintained Asna’s position as valedictorian, the cowardly decision to cancel her 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.”

Ayloush called the “defamatory attacks” on Tabassum “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.”

“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,” Ayloush added. “The university can, should and must ensure a safe environment for graduation rather than taking the unprecedented step of canceling a valedictorian’s speech.”

which was released through CAIR-LA, Tabassum said that what “should have been a time of celebration” has been overshadowed.

“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 the statement.

“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 wrote.

She claimed that in a meeting with USC administrators on April 14, she was told the university had the resources “to take appropriate safety measures” for her speech. She said that she was told USC would not be increasing security protections, since that was “not what the university wants to ‘present as an image.’ “

Tabassum said she is not aware of specific threats against her or USC, and that when she requested more details from her school, she was denied. Because she would not be provided any increased security from the school, she admitted “serious doubts” about the decision to revoke her speech.

Provost Guzman stated that the school’s decision in no way diminishes “the remarkable academic achievements of any student considered or selected for valedictorian.” He said USC’s valedictorians are traditionally selected through the Valedictorian and Salutatorian Selection Committee, which evaluated nearly 100 applicants based on GPA, essay submissions and other academic criteria. The factors do not include social media activity, Guzman said.

“To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement,” Guzman noted, citing USC’s .

The also rejected the university’s decision, calling it “another example of USC’s egregious pattern of supporting anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim racism.”

Activists are calling the act an attempt to silence the pro-Palestinian voices of college students, noting in Claremont and at UC Berkeley.

Ed Hasan, an educator and USC class of 2018 graduate, was “disappointed” in his alma mater, saying it is “capitulating to hateful groups attacking Tabassum… because she’s pro-Palestinian, because she’s Muslim, and because she wears a hijab.” He thought USC would always promote diversity and inclusion, and support marginalized communities and students.

“If we don’t allow her to speak, it’s really going to flip academia on its head because there is no academic freedom here. At this point, that’s what (USC) is proving,” Hasan said. “If we give in to hate and silence her, our ‘Fight On’ slogan never meant anything. We’re learning very quickly that it’s ‘Fight On’ — except for Palestine.”

Tabassum was also the , but  in person because of the COVID pandemic.

Leaders from the group expressed their support for Tabassum in a statement Tuesday.

“This is yet another example of a liberal institution in America censoring pro-Palestinian voices. We strongly condemn USC’s bigotry and censorship,” said spokesperson Selena Harrigan. “Asna, your Chino Valley community fully supports you and is immensely proud of your unwavering courage.”

Staff writer Allyson Vergara and City ɫ̳ Service contributed to this report.

 

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