USC Remains Under Fire for Canceled Valedictorian Speech

Reasons for canceling the speech included safety concerns.

USC Remains Under Fire for Canceled Valedictorian Speech (Getty Images)

California; HaywardThe 2024 valedictorian of the University of Southern California (USC), Asna Tabassum, encountered a disheartening turn of events as the university retracted her invitation to deliver a commencement speech, citing security concerns amidst escalating tensions related to the Middle East conflict, according to CNN. Despite the prestigious honor of being named valedictorian, Tabassum found herself excluded from the opportunity to address her peers and celebrate her academic achievements on stage.

The decision by USC sparked controversy and disappointment, particularly for Tabassum, a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim, who viewed the valedictorian speech as a culmination of her academic journey and an opportunity to share her message of hope and unity. Tabassum expressed shock and dismay at the university's decision, questioning the validity of the security concerns raised and highlighting her commitment to standing up for human rights and equality.

“This campaign to prevent me from addressing my peers at commencement has evidently accomplished its goal: today, USC administrators informed me that the university will no longer allow me to speak at commencement due to supposed security concerns,” Tabassum said in a statement. “I am both shocked by this decision and profoundly disappointed that the University is succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

The controversy surrounding Tabassum's exclusion from the commencement ceremony stemmed from her stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. A post on Tabassum’s Instagram account (now private) was deemed as antisemitic and anti-Zionism by USC’s bipartisan advocacy group Trojans for Israel. USC, in justifying its decision, emphasized the need to prioritize safety and prevent potential disruptions during the graduation proceedings. However, Tabassum and her supporters viewed the university's actions as an infringement on her right to free speech and an attempt to silence her voice on important social issues.

“Because I am not aware of any specific threats against me or the university, because my request for the details underlying the university’s threat assessment has been denied, and because I am not being provided any increased safety to be able to speak at commencement, there remain serious doubts about whether USC’s decision to revoke my invitation to speak is made solely on the basis of safety,” she said.

Despite the setback, Tabassum remained steadfast in her convictions and expressed hope for a reconsideration of the decision by USC. She underscored her role as a symbol for her community and reiterated her commitment to advocating for justice and equality. 

Meanwhile, critics, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, condemned USC's decision as cowardly and argued that it empowered voices of hate and censorship.

As the debate unfolded, questions arose about the balance between ensuring campus security and upholding principles of free speech and academic freedom. Tabassum's case highlighted the complexities surrounding discussions of sensitive political issues within academic institutions and underscored the challenges faced by students navigating intersecting identities and viewpoints.

Amid the controversy, Tabassum's message of resilience and determination resonated with many, serving as a reminder of the importance of standing up for one's beliefs and advocating for positive change, even in the face of adversity. While uncertainty loomed over her participation in the graduation ceremony, Tabassum remained hopeful that the university would reconsider its decision and afford her the opportunity to share her message with her peers and the broader community.

Noumaan Faiz, (he/him) is a journalist and entertainer from Hayward, CA who covers culture and entertainment.

Edited by Nykeya Woods

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