Why USC canceled its pro-Palestinian valedictorian

Why USC canceled its pro-Palestinian valedictorian

Asna Tabassum, a graduating senior at the University of Southern California majoring in biomedical engineering, is at the center of the latest firestorm on college campuses after the university named her valedictorian, then barred her from speaking at graduation. | Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As the school year winds down, colleges are still grappling with student speech.

Campus tensions over Israel’s war on Gaza have flared up again, this time at the University of Southern California, which this week barred its valedictorian from speaking at next month’s commencement ceremony. The school cited potential campus safety risks if Asna Tabassum delivered a speech.

Provost Andrew T. Guzman said in an email to students and staff on Monday that public discussion had “taken on an alarming tenor” after the school announced its choice for valedictorian. “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.

Tabassum, a South Asian American biomedical engineering major who is Muslim and wears a hijab, says that she, along with other critics of the decision, believes the school canceled her speech because of her public support for the human rights of Palestinians.

Pro-Israel USC student groups, including Trojans for Israel and the Chabad Jewish Student Center, had complained online about Tabassum’s views, calling them antisemitic. The Provost explained in the email that the decision “has nothing to do with freedom of speech” and made no mention of Tabassum’s political views. The Provost’s email did not state whether USC had already received specific threats of violence or disruption.

Since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, campuses have been embroiled in controversy as student protests test the boundaries of freedom of expression. Many college and university leaders have struggled to make satisfactory public statements about the conflict and balance safety with speech protections. In the attack, Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis and took more than 200 hostage. Since then, Israel has killed 33,899 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Though schools have vowed to keep their students safe, some have reported facing violence and harassment. After failing to adequately condemn antisemitism in congressional testimony late last year, the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard resigned. A congressional hearing on Wednesday also brought Columbia University’s president before lawmakers to answer questions about the school’s response to antisemitism, showing that the quandary is far from over.

The USC Provost referenced the broader turmoil on US campuses in his email: “We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses.”

Pro-Israel groups are celebrating USC’s decision, claiming that Tabassum’s speech, which she said she had not yet written, could have made Jewish students feel uncomfortable. Tabassum told Inside Edition that she hoped to share a message of hope in her speech.

Meanwhile, critics say that it undermines free speech and is a signal that universities are caving to pro-Israel pressures. “USC cannot hide its cowardly decision behind a disingenuous concern for ‘security,” said Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Los Angeles. “The university can, should and must ensure a safe environment for graduation rather than taking the unprecedented step of canceling a valedictorian’s speech.” Student groups and outlets including the LA Times and the Guardian have defended Tabassum and condemned USC.

As the academic year comes to a close, the country is watching how similar situations might unfold on other campuses. It’s customary for students to make political statements during commencement speeches, but this year’s campus controversies could lead schools to keep buckling under pressure, raising concerns about students’ freedom of expression in the process.

USC chose its valedictorian — then silenced her

USC announced that Tabassum would be the university’s valedictorian on April 2, based on her grade point average, which topped 3.98, contributions to the campus community, essay submission, and performance in interviews. Tabassum, who also minors in resistance to genocide — studies about conflicts including the war in Ukraine, genocide in Darfur, and the Holocaust — was selected from more than 200 students who qualified for the award, and was slated to deliver the customary valedictory speech at the May 10 commencement. Then, Tabassum was notified that she wouldn’t deliver the address at commencement after all because of safety concerns. Critics began to speculate that USC was kowtowing to pro-Israel groups and people who complained about Tabassum being selected as valedictorian.

The right-wing pro-Israel organization organization End Jew Hatred welcomed USC’s decision stating, “Ms. Tabassum’s speech as valedictorian was anticipated to be harmful to Jewish students and even potentially agitate anti-Jewish activists.” The USC campus group the Trojans for Israel wrote that Tabassum “openly traffics in antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric.”

Tabassum told CNN that she received “hate and vitriol” for including a link to the website “Free-Palestine.Carrd.Co” on her Instagram profile. The homepage of the website contains the image of a woman holding up a Palestinian flag and a peace sign rising above flames and smoke, and links to help visitors “learn about what’s happening in Palestine.”

USC’s Chabad argued that the linked website called for the “abolishment of the state of Israel” and called the words on the website, which Tabassum did not create, “antisemitic and hate speech.”

Tabassum said in a statement that she believes there was a “campaign” of “racist hatred” on the part of “anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices” to prevent her from addressing her peers at commencement due to her “uncompromising belief in human rights for all.”

“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,” Tabassum said, adding that the school denied her request for more information about their threat assessment.

Pro-Palestinian students and groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace have faced discipline, sanctions, and campus suspensions and bans over protest activity since October 7 — part of a long history silencing student activism for Palestine. Meanwhile, students advocating for Palestine have been labeled antisemitic for chanting phrases such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “globalize the intifada.” Student protesters say the phrases don’t advocate for harm to Israelis, while critics say the phrases are threatening and call for violence.

School leadership has often said the groups were reprimanded for violating school policies amid a rise in antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment on campus. On Thursday, police in riot gear arrested more than 100 pro-Palestinian Columbia students at President Minouche Shafik’s direction, while administrators suspended three Barnard students, including, Isra Hirsi, the daughter of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar (D), for setting up “unauthorized” protest encampments on campus.

USC has not responded to requests for further information about any specific threats to Tabassum or anyone else in the USC community. USC has not yet responded to Vox’s request for comment.

“If anti-Palestinian groups are threatening violence, then USC needs to say what they’ve threatened and why it is so dangerous that it has led to such a drastic action, instead of disingenuously claiming that it isn’t engaging in censorship,” said Radhika Sainath, an attorney at Palestine Legal, an organization that defends people who speak out in support of Palestine.

“The fact that Palestinians and their allies are being punished and canceled in this way — while Israel is committing an ongoing genocide in Gaza — speaks to the McCarthyite moment we’re in.”

USC’s decision raises questions about free speech on campus

USC is a private school that makes First Amendment-like free speech promises, Alex Morey, an attorney at Foundation Individual Right and Expression, an organization that advocates for free speech, told Vox. The school is also required to provide students First Amendment rights in certain situations under California’s Leonard Law, a 1992 statute that extended free speech protections to students at private colleges and universities in the state. The school’s decision to cancel Tabassum’s speech, Morey said, “does implicate campus expression in an important way.”

“For those of us watching the campus speech space on the regular, canceling controversial speeches or events due to vague, unspecified ‘safety concerns’ is one of the oldest tricks in the book,” Morey said. “USC appears to have made a calculated move that this was the way to avoid the most criticism. Yanking the student’s valedictorian status or canceling the speech for viewpoint-based reasons, would have pleased the students’ critics but angered her supporters. By citing ‘safety’ however, USC’s doing their best to look like the good guy and suggest this isn’t about viewpoint at all.”

Morey told Vox the school should have done everything in its power to ensure that the event would go on, and that if threats remained, it should have been transparent about what those threats are.

If USC did in fact cancel the speech due to pressure from pro-Israel critics, now they know “that with the right amount of pressure, they can silence certain views at USC,” Morey said.

The USC decision has also introduced bigger questions about whether students who have publicly expressed any views on Palestine or Israel will be passed over for honors in the future. These decisions might lead students to self-censor.

“If USC will only honor students with certain views, are they really living up to their lofty free expression promises?” Morey said.

Ironically, Morey pointed out, Tabassum minored in “resistance to genocide” and is effectively getting dinged for saying “precisely the kind of things you’d imagine one would hear in Resistance to Genocide 101 at a school like USC.”

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