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USC's cancellation of valedictorian's speech 'empowers hate'

USC's cancellation of Asna Tabassum valedictorian's speech 'empowers hate'
4 min read
Washington, DC
19 April, 2024
The University of California's cancellation of the speech of their valedictorian due to alleged security concerns, is raising alarms over free speech.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators gather in Los Angeles. [Getty]

The University of California's cancellation of the graduation speech of their valedictorian, a South Asian Muslim, over alleged "security concerns" is raising alarms over campus free speech amid a climate of growing tension related to Israel's war on Gaza.

Asna Tabassum, a biomedical engineering student who also has a minor in "Resistance to Genocide", was chosen as her class's valedictorian based on her academic performance. Though she doesn't have a history of actively engaging in Middle East politics, she has in the past shared a handful of posts (usually written by someone else) expressing sympathy with Palestinians and condemning Israel. 

Within hours of USC's announcement of Tabassum being chosen as valedictorian, she had been doxxed on social media, leading to thousands of threatening messages to the university (which haven't been made public).

This apparently was enough to spook USC administrators, who announced the cancellation of their valedictorian's speech, a move that likely was intended to prevent controversy but which ultimately did the opposite. The decision has elicited widespread support for Tabassum and condemnation of USC.

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"USC's decision to cancel Asna Tabassum's speech empowers voices of hate and censorship and violates USC's obligation to protect its students from dishonest and defamatory attacks," Hussam Ayloush, executive director of Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The New Arab.

In the university's statement on the cancellation of the speech, USC Provost Andrew Guzman wrote in a lengthy public missive, without mentioning Israel or Palestine, "After careful consideration, we have decided that our student valedictorian will not deliver a speech at commencement. While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety."

Many were quick to point out that last year, USC hosted a speech by former President Barack Obama, and the university was able to provide him with the security he needed.

"I've never heard of a university cancelling a graduation speech by a duly chosen valedictorian. If USC is afraid of disruption, they should increase their security," Edward Ahmed Mitchell, national depury director of CAIR, told TNA. He added that he  worries this could affect the chances of Muslims or other minorities being chosen as valedictorians in the future. 

Based on the university's public statement, USC will still be having dozens of student speakers at their 2024 commencement ceremony, which raises the question as to why Tabassum has been singled out.

For her part, the valedictorian appears to be taking the controversy in stride, after recovering from the initial shock of the university's decision. She has appeared on multiple news programmes, saying that she wasn't given any details of the alleged security threats and hadn't even written her speech when she was informed it was cancelled. 

"Ultimately, my message is one of hope," Tabassum said in an interview Thursday with Democracy Now. "I also want to do a message of inspiration so that our graduates and my peers can feel empowered to take on issues of world concern and see themselves in positions of making change."

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With time still left until USC's commencement ceremony, many are hoping the university will reconsider their decision. The Los Angeles Times has written an editorial condemning USC's decision. Meanwhile, CAIR has initiated a petition to reinstate Tabassum as valedictorian speaker, which by late Thursday evening had garnered 38,000 signatures in less than 48 hours.

"The tremendous response from the community in support of Asna highlights the urgent need for our colleges and universities to take action to address anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim hate on campuses and to create a safe environment for each and every one of their students," said Ayloush from CAIR. 

He added, "In a time of such blatant atrocities happening in Gaza, it is crucial that people engage in their fundamental right to speak out against injustice, and even more importantly, that colleges and universities uphold their duty to allow students to exercise this right safely and without fear of harassment, doxxing, censorship, or other hateful attacks."