Apr 16, 2024 - Politics & Policy

USC cancels Pro-Palestinian valedictorian's speech over safety concerns

A student sits while typing on a laptop outdoors. Behind him, five arches are seen with many trees in the background.

The Univeristy of Southern California canceled its valedictorian's commencement speech on April 15. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The University of Southern California canceled its valedictorian's commencement speech, citing safety concerns related to the Israel-Hamas war.

Why it matters: Islamophobia and antisemitism in higher education have become the focus of federal investigation and testimony, as reports of discrimination have increased across the country since the war's onset.

  • "Tradition must give way to safety," Andrew Guzman, USC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said in a statement on Monday.
  • "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 Council on American-Islamic Relations has called on the university to reverse its decision.
  • "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," wrote executive director Hussam Ayloush.

State of play: Asna Tabassum, USC's class of 2024 valedictorian who identifies as a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim, said she was told on Monday that she would no longer be allowed to speak at the commencement ceremony in May.

  • "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," she wrote in a statement released by CAIR.

Tabassum, who minored in resistance to genocide, said she learned "that ordinary people are capable of unspeakable acts of violence when they are taught hate fueled by fear."

  • "And due to widespread fear, I was hoping to use my commencement speech to inspire my classmates with a message of hope. By canceling my speech, USC is only caving to fear and rewarding hatred."

Between the lines: Tabassum was denied requests for the details underlying the university's threat assessment, she said.

  • She was unaware of any specific threats against her or USC.
  • "There remain serious doubts about whether USC's decision to revoke my invitation to speak is made solely on the basis of safety," she said.
  • The university maintained that its decision "has nothing to do with freedom of speech."
  • At least one pro-Israel USC student group called for her removal as commencement speaker.

Context: The announcement comes as other universities in the U.S. faced scrutiny over their handling of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus.

  • Columbia University's president will testify on Wednesday before Congress to discuss the school's response to campus antisemitism.
  • The presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard resigned earlier this year following a similar congressional testimony.

Go deeper: Israel-Hamas war becomes flashpoint on U.S. college campuses

Go deeper