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USC valedictorian barred from graduation speech: 'The university has betrayed me'

Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — When Asna Tabassum learned that the University of Southern California had barred her from speaking at next month’s graduation, she hadn’t yet planned what she would say in her remarks, beyond that she would convey a message of hope.

University leaders who announced the decision Monday, after pro-Israel groups criticized a link on Tabassum’s Instagram page as evidence of her being antisemitic, didn’t know the theme of her speech because she hadn’t shared it with them, the class valedictorian said an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday.

Tabassum, a biomedical engineering major, said that in addition to hope, she was thinking of touching on “how we must continue to use our education as a privilege to inform ourselves and ultimately make a change in the world.”

In barring Tabassum from giving a three- to five-minute speech in front of 65,000 people during the May 10 ceremony, USC Provost Andrew T. Guzman cited the need to “maintain campus safety and security.” The university alluded to unnamed threats but has not publicly detailed them.

The move was unprecedented for a ceremony where students regularly make political and cultural statements through written message on their graduation caps and sashes, as well as through the traditional valedictory speech.

The backlash against Tabassum, who was chosen as valedictorian by a university committee from more than 100 applicants with GPAs of 3.98 or above, was unusual, even at a time of intense campus strife between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel activists, because it didn’t involve anything she said or did. The opposition appeared to stem mostly from a link on her Instagram profile to a website she did not create.


The site, “Free Palestine Carrd,” features a photo of a woman raising a Palestinian flag above plumes of smoke during a 2018 protest near the Israel-Gaza border. A series of links explains how to “learn about what’s happening in Palestine.”

The links include statements that Zionism is a “racist settler-colonialist ideology” and that founders of Zionism thought “Palestinians needed to be ethnically cleansed from their homes.” The website explains proposals for two-state and one-state solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“One Palestinian state would mean Palestinian liberation, and the complete abolishment of the state of Israel,” it says, adding that “both Arabs and Jews can live together.”

Speaking to the Times on Tuesday, Tabassum defended herself, saying she is not antisemitic. She said she supports the pro-Palestinian cause that has grown at college campuses since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people and took more than 240 hostage before Israel’s retaliatory war in Gaza, which health authorities there say has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians and the United Nations says has left 2 million Gazans in near-famine conditions.


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