California university cancels Muslim valedictorian’s speech, citing safety concerns

Asna Tabassum, a student of ‘genocide resistance’ who has advocated for Israel’s eradication, says institution ‘caving to fear’; Jewish groups say she’s espoused antisemitic views

USC student Asna Tabassum speaks to ABC News, April 16, 2024 (Video screenshot)
USC student Asna Tabassum speaks to ABC News, April 16, 2024 (Video screenshot)

LOS ANGELES, April 16 (Reuters) — The University of Southern California, citing safety concerns and passions around the latest Middle East conflict, has canceled its valedictorian speech from a Muslim student who said she was being silenced by anti-Palestinian hatred for her views on human rights.

USC Provost Andrew Guzman said in a statement on Monday that the decision to scrub the traditional valedictorian address at next month’s graduation had “nothing to do with freedom of speech” and was simply aimed at protecting campus security.

The valedictorian, biomedical engineering major Asna Tabassum, in her own statement challenged the university’s rationale, questioning “whether USC’s decision to revoke my invitation to speak is made solely on the basis of safety.”

Guzman’s statement did not refer to Tabassum by name, or specify what about her speech, background or political views had raised concerns. Nor did it detail any particular threats.

The provost referred more broadly to how “discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian had taken on an alarming tenor” in recent days.

“The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement,” he wrote.

Public safety officials and civil rights advocates have reported a rise in hate crimes against Muslims, Jews, Arabs and Palestinians in the United States, along with heightened tensions on college campuses related to the Israel-Gaza war, since the conflict erupted on Oct. 7.

According to Tabassum, who described herself as a “first-generation South Asian-American Muslim,” USC officials refused in an April 14 meeting with her to share details of the university’s security assessment.

USC, renowned for an intercollegiate athletic program whose football and other teams are known as the Trojans, did not respond to Reuters’ request for further comment.

Tabassum said she also was told USC possessed the ability “to take appropriate safety measures for my valedictory speech” but opted not to because a tougher security posture was “not what the university wants to ‘present as an image.'”

Instead, Tabassum said USC was “caving to fear and rewarding hatred,” which she said was being directed by “anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices” targeting her “because of my uncompromising belief in human rights for all.”

Neither Tabassum nor USC made explicit mention of the Israel-Gaza war.

Trojans for Israel, a USC-based group, and We Are Tov (Hebrew for “good”), a group advocating support for Israel and Jews in collegiate life, had called for Tabassum’s removal as commencement speaker earlier this month, saying she had espoused antisemitic views in the past.

University of Southern California student Daphne Yaman holds Palestinian stickers in support of valedictorian Asna Tabassum on campus on Tuesday, April 16, 2024 (AP Photo/Eugene Garcia)

Local media reported both groups had mounted opposition to Tabassum based on her social media profile, including an Instagram account with a link directing users to a slideshow about “what’s happening in Palestine and how to help.” It advocated for “one Palestinian state” and “the complete abolishment of the state of Israel.”

Tabassum told an NBC News affiliate that she posted the link five years earlier and did not author the slideshow.

In her statement, Tabassum said her undergraduate minor studies in genocide resistance had shown her the danger of allowing “cries for equality and human dignity” to be deliberately conflated with “expressions of hatred.”

“Due to widespread fear, I was hoping to use my commencement speech to inspire my classmates with a message of hope,” she wrote.

Tabassum was chosen valedictorian from nearly 100 applicants — submitted from among the more than 200 graduating seniors — who qualified for the honor based on their grade-point-averages, according to USC.

The university had not asked for an advanced copy of Tabassum’s address before withdrawing her invitation to speak, and she had not even begun working on her speech, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, an advocacy group that circulated her statement.

The May 10 commencement exercises, honoring this year’s class of 19,000-plus graduates, is expected to draw 65,000 people to the downtown Los Angeles campus of USC, long regarded as one of California’s most prestigious private universities.

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