USC cancels US filmmaker Jon M. Chu speech following pro-Palestine valedictorian student controversy

USC cancels US filmmaker Jon M. Chu speech following pro-Palestine valedictorian student controversy
A keynote set to be delivered by Jon M. Chu has been annulled in the wake of the university's controversial decision to cancel a speech by its top student.
3 min read
20 April, 2024
Jon M. Chu will no longer make a speech at USC's graduation ceremony in May [Getty/file photo]

The University of Southern California (USC) has cancelled an upcoming keynote speech by US filmmaker Jon M. Chu, claiming it is "readjusting" its list of guests and honorees for its upcoming graduation ceremony in May.

Chu was set to be featured at the main commencement ceremony as  a speaker, alongside honorary degree recipients former tennis star Billie Jean King, National Endowment for the Arts chair Maria Rosario Jackson and National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt.

Chu is a prominent filmmaker, having directed the box-office hit 'Crazy Rich Asians' in 2018 and the film adaptation of famed Broadway musical 'Wicked'. He graduated from the university in 2003.

The university, in a statement on Friday, said: "To keep the focus on our graduates, we are redesigning the commencement program. Given the highly publicized circumstances surrounding our main-stage commencement program, university leadership has decided it is best to release our outside speakers and honorees from attending this year’s ceremony."

"We’ve been talking to this exceptional group and hope to confer these honorary degrees at a future commencement or other academic ceremonies," it added.

The "highly publicised event" is most likely a reference to the private university's move to cancel a speech slated to be delivered by its valedictorian student for 2024 Asna Tabassum over so-called "security threats".

Tabassum is a South Asian American Muslim student majoring in biomedical engineering with a minor in 'resistance to genocide'. She has shared a number of pro-Palestinian posts on social media, though not authored by herself.

The Californian university did not mention pro-Palestinian activism or anything related to the territory in their reasons for removing Tabassum, instead citing "security concerns". USC also failed to mention anything related to Israel, Gaza or Palestine in their announcement of Chu's removal.

The university’s decision was met with praise from local pro-Israel organisations, including the bi-partisan American-Israeli pressure group Trojans for Israel. 

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Israel has waged a deadly war in the Gaza Strip since 7 October, killing at least 34,049 people as of Saturday. Israel has been accused of carrying out a genocide in the enclave, as it commits atrocities against Palestinians in the territory on a daily basis.

The cancellation of Tabassum’s speech has prompted outrage over  "institutional silencing" and has been condemned by many of the university’s students as well as organisations such as the Council on American-Islamic Affairs (CAIR), who described the decision as "cowardly".

Tabassum said she is "both shocked" by this decision and "profoundly disappointed" that USC is "succumbing to a campaign of hate" meant to silence her voice. 

Additionally, the incident comes amid the increasingly hostile treatment of pro-Palestinian students across US university campuses caused by tensions surrounding Israel's war on Gaza.

On Thursday, over 100 pro-Palestinian students were arrested at Columbia University campus on 'trespassing' grounds after students, including Congresswoman Ilhan Omar's daughter, formed an encampment.