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Citing safety concerns, USC cancels pro-Palestinian valedictorian's graduation speech

Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Saying "tradition must give way to safety," USC on Monday made the unprecedented move of canceling the upcoming graduation speech of an undergraduate valedictorian who has come under fire for her pro-Palestinian views.

The move, according to USC officials, is the first time the university has banned a valedictorian from the traditional chance to speak onstage at the annual commencement ceremony, which typically draws more than 65,000 people to the Los Angeles campus.

In a campuswide letter, USC Provost Andrew T. Guzman cited unnamed threats that have poured in shortly after the university publicized the valedictorian's name and biography this month. Guzman said attacks against the student for her pro-Palestinian views have reached an "alarming tenor" and "escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement" in May.

"After careful consideration, we have decided that our student valedictorian will not deliver a speech at commencement. ... There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period," Guzman wrote.

The student, whom the letter does not name, is biomedical engineering major Asna Tabassum. USC officials chose Tabassum from nearly 100 student applicants who had GPAs of 3.98 or higher.

But after USC President Carol Folt announced her selection, a swarm of on- and off-campus groups attacked Tabassum. They targeted her minor, resistance to genocide, as well as her pro-Palestinian views and "likes" expressed through her Instagram account.


We Are Tov, a group that uses the Hebrew word for "good" and describes itself as "dedicated to combating antisemitism," posted Tabassum's image on its Instagram account and said she "openly promotes antisemitic writings." The group also criticized Tabassum for liking Instagram posts from "Trojans for Palestine." Tabassum's Instagram bio links to a landing page that says "learn about what's happening in Palestine, and how to help."

The campus group Trojans for Israel also posted on its Instagram account, calling for Folt's "reconsideration" of Tabassum for what it described as her "antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric." The group said Tabassum's Instagram bio linked to a page that called Zionism a "racist settler-colonial ideology."

In a statement, Tabassum opposed the decision, saying USC has "abandoned" her.

"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," said Tabassum, who is Muslim.


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