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USC cancels Muslim student’s valedictorian speech after pro-Palestinian social posts flagged

The school claimed it was out of an abundance of caution.


Tricia Crimmins


Posted on Apr 16, 2024   Updated on Apr 17, 2024, 8:20 am CDT

Yesterday, the University of Southern California (USC) announced that Asna Tabassum, the undergraduate Class of 2024 valedictorian, will not be speaking at the upcoming graduation ceremony. Tabussum is Muslim and has spoken out against Israel on social media.

The University Provost, Andrew Guzman, said in an email the decision was made in an abundance of caution to avoid any disruptions or safety risks during the ceremony. But in the days leading up to the email, Tabussum was attacked online by anti-Palestinian groups for her pro-Palestinian social media posts.

“Tradition must give way to safety,” Guzman wrote in his email. “This decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. 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 specifically stated that an “intensity of feelings” around the Israeli-Hamas war “fueled by social media” led to the decision to cancel Tabassum’s speech.

Pro-Israel accounts, like Israel War Room and We Are Tov on Instagram, posted screenshots of Tabussum’s social media accounts last week and said she was promoting “antisemitic views” by posting a link to resources about Palestine and pro-Palestinian content.

“Being selected valedictorian is an honor, and we are positive she is academically qualified for the position, but it’s unacceptable that she promotes antisemitic views,” a post from both Israel War Room and We Are Tov said in its caption. “What will she say at the podium?”

Guzman wrote in his email that social media does not factor into the school’s decision for choosing a valedictorian.

The resource Tabussum included in her Instagram bio defined Zionism as “a racist settler-colonial ideology that advocates for a Jewish ethnostate built on Palestinian land.” It also stated “while some anti-zionists can be antisemitic (just as some zionists can be antisemitic), the position itself is not.”

In a statement, Tabussum said that USC had “abandoned” her in its decision to cancel her speech as a result of “a campaign of racist hatred” by “anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices.” She also said though USC could provide safety measures and allow her to speak on graduation day, the university decided not to.

“The University had the resources to take appropriate safety measures for my valedictory speech,” Tabussum said she was told in a meeting with Guzman and the school’s associate senior vice president of safety and risk assurance, “but that they would not be doing so since increased security protections is not what the university wants to ‘present as an image.'”

The university has received immense backlash for its decision to cancel Tabussum’s speech. In an Instagram post, the USC Palestine Justice Faculty group said it rejected Guzman’s decision and called it racist.

“The Provost’s action is another example of USC’s egregious pattern of supporting anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim racism,” the group’s post states. “We demand that this decision be revoked immediately.”

Others expressed their feelings about USC’s decision on social media as well.

“They’ll tell you to be a good immigrant. Put your head down, work hard. So you do. You make it, you are Valedictorian at a great school,” University of Chicago Professor Eman Abdelhadi tweeted. “Turns out, your hard work can only get you so far, because you’re still Muslim and brown and no amount of work can change that. Shame on USC.”

Tabassum also minored in “resistance to genocide,” a fact that wasn’t lost on the internet.

“Imagine educating a young person on something as important as resistance to genocide, then being so afraid of what she might do with that knowledge you deny her the platform she Earned in hopes she won’t exercise the voice you claimed to empower her with,” wrote human rights lawyer Qasim Rashid.

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*First Published: Apr 16, 2024, 4:25 pm CDT