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USC Cancels Valedictorian’s Commencement Speech, Ignites Criticism

Source: Alan Mittelstaedt (LAist)

The University of Southern California (USC) sparked outrage last week when Provost Andrew Guzman announced that the school’s valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, won’t be allowed to give her commencement speech. He says it’s due to security and safety concerns, but others think it’s an attempt to silence her. Here’s what you need to know!

Meet Asna Tabassum: USC’s 2024 Valedictorian

Asna Tabassum is a fourth-year biomedical engineering student at USC who hails from Chino Hills, CA. She describes herself as a first-generation American of South Asian descent, and identifies as a Muslim – hence her hijab. 

Source: Asna Tabassum

In March, Asna learned that she had been chosen as USC’s valedictorian. It was something she was extremely proud of and honored by – not just because it’s a testament to her hard work, but because she knew it gave her an opportunity to address her class with a speech.

Tabassum Has Shown Support For Palestinians

When the school introduced her as valedictorian, it didn’t take long for critics to voice their opinion. And when they did, they criticized Tabassum for her pro-Palestinian social media posts – which they say contain antisemitic views and opinions. 

Source: Pok Rie from Pexels via Canva

In one of her posts, Tabassum calls for ‘one Palestinian state’ and says it ‘would mean Palestinian liberation and the complete abolishment of the state of Israel.’ As a result, many Jewish groups and pro-Israel activists take offense to her posts. 

USC Cancels Asna’s Commencement Speech 

On April 15, Provost Andrew Guzman published an ‘important update’ on the school’s 2024 commencement ceremony. He began by congratulating all 19,000+ graduates and sharing his excitement over the 65,000+ guests who will join them.

Source: Via Los Angeles Times

After a brief intro, he quickly turned his attention to Asna and confirmed that she would no longer be speaking as valedictorian. He cited the ‘alarming tenor’ that has taken place online since the school announced their decision to choose her as valedictorian. 

Guzman Considering How To Best Move Forward

Guzman went on to explain that the ‘intensity of feelings’ fueled online and over the ongoing conflict in the Middle East have ‘escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.’ 

Source: rattanakun via Canva

Considering that similar risks have resulted in harassment and violence on other campuses, USC decided to do what it felt was best for its students. However, it will find a way to ensure inclusiveness moving forward. 

Tabassum Honored, But Disappointed

Not long after the decision was made public, Tabassum released a statement of her own. While she admitted to feeling ‘honored,’ she was disappointed that she was being silenced by ‘anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices’ who are subjecting her to a ‘campaign of racist hatred.’

Source: ROMIXIMAGE via Canva

“This campaign to prevent me from addressing my peers at commencement has evidently accomplished its goal,” she wrote. “I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university—my home for four years—has abandoned me.”

Many Criticize USC’s Handling Of The Situation

While some people were critical of Asna Tabassum, others were critical of USC and their handling of the situation. Even though Tabassum might have some repugnant personal views, she should still be allowed to exercise her right to free speech. 

Source: Flickr/USC

With that being said, the university shouldn’t have canceled Tabassum’s speech. Instead, they should’ve taken the extra time, energy, and effort to ensure she, her class, and the thousands of guests were safe – without having to silence her. 

FIRE Calls It An Attack On Free Speech

In a post on X, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) described USC’s decision as an ‘utterly transparent attempt at censorship’ and criticized the campus for ‘setting a poor example’ in what was the ‘first big commencement season controversy’ of 2024. 

Source: Drazen Zigic from Getty Images via Canva

They further detailed their issue with the decision in a statement, published on their website on April 17. “Despite the provost’s claims that ‘this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech,’ FIRE disagrees,” they wrote online. 

USC Can Learn From Adrian College

Some critics want USC to learn from Adrian College. Last month, Adrian College faced similar backlash after announcing that Riley Gaines, a women’s sports activist, had been chosen as its spring commencement speaker. People were outraged almost immediately. 

Source: Wikimedia/Dwight Burdette

Gaines is an accomplished collegiate swimmer who made national headlines after speaking out against transgender women being allowed to compete in women’s sports. Some people agree with her, while others don’t. 

LGBTQ+ Group Starts Petition Opposing Gaines

Those who don’t support Gaines are doing what USC is doing to Asna Tabassum – trying to silence her. In fact, one student LGBTQ+ group, Safe Place, started a petition at Change.org – urging Adrian College to ‘disinvite’ Riley from speaking at the ceremony. 

Source: Vetrestudio via Canva

“Her presence at such an important event could potentially harm those who support or belong to our community. We must create an environment where everyone feels respected and valued, especially during such significant moments as graduation,” they wrote in the petition – which has already received more than 1,600 signatures. 

Adrian College Refuses To Listen To Critics

Despite the constant calls to remove her as a speaker, Adrian College is doing what many people wanted USC to do when people criticized them for choosing Tabassum – ignore it. Instead of giving in to the pressure, Adrian College doubled down on their decision. 

Source: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

“We welcome Riley Gaines to our beautiful campus, and we feel confident our students will be inspired by her commencement address,” said school President Jeffrey Docking in a statement back in March. 

School President Defends Decision

Docking went on to call this an ‘important issue that should be discussed at colleges and universities throughout the United States’ – referring, of course, to Riley Gaines’ opposition of transgender athletes in women’s sports (which many people believe to be unfair).

Source: Wikimedia/Notorious4life

“Adrian College has never shied away from presenting and debating substantive disagreements on campus. In fact, this is precisely the purpose of universities — to engage in civil discourse of controversial issues,” Docking continued. 

Where Does USC Go From Here? 

As for USC, they appear intent on not allowing Asna Tabassum to speak at the commencement ceremony on May 10. In fact, they’re taking things one step further by barring all outside speakers and honorees from speaking at the ceremony. 

Source: Wikimedia/FASTILY

Their decision comes as a shock to those who were hoping they would reinstate Tabassum as a speaker and go a similar route as Adrian College. Instead, they’re doing the opposite and are choosing to silence everyone and anyone. 

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Ryan Handson

Written by Ryan Handson

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