USC Valedictorian Slams School For Canceling Her Speech

The university said Asna Tabassum’s commencement speech would be canceled due to security and safety risks.

Earlier this month, the University of Southern California announced that Asna Tabassum would be the Class of 2024′s valedictorian, with a 3.98 GPA and in recognition of her community service and leadership skills. She is graduating with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in resistance to genocide.

But on Monday, USC canceled the speech.

In an announcement dated Monday, Provost Andrew Guzman said the “intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East” has “created substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.”

“After careful consideration, we have decided that our student valedictorian will not deliver a speech at commencement. While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety,” he wrote. “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.”

The school did not elaborate further. Reached for comment, the provost’s office directed HuffPost to Guzman’s statement.

Tabassum, in an interview with HuffPost, questioned the university’s reasoning and told HuffPost she felt disappointed and let down by USC.

“I am surprised that my own university – my home for four years – has abandoned me,” she said.

In a statement published on Monday, Tabassum said that she was not aware of any specific threats against her or the university, and that during a meeting last Sunday, administrators told her that “the University had the resources to take appropriate safety measures for my valedictory speech, but that they would not be doing so since increased security protections is not what the University wants to ’present as an image.’”

“Security and safety is also my concern. That’s consistent with my commitment to human equality and human rights. I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive at all,” Tabassum told HuffPost. She noted that notable figures including former President Barack Obama, rap star Travis Scott and right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos have all been able to visit campus grounds.

“The university has created many safety measures, and created room for many more speakers, who are more controversial and more significant than I am,” said Tabassum. “I’m the valedictorian. I’m someone who the university has chosen to represent its students. When it comes to actually believing if the university is making this decision about safety, I have to consider it in the lens of the university making the decisions to protect others who have come onto campus but not protecting me.”

A slew of universities have struggled to address students’ protests of the bombing campaign by Israeli forces in Gaza that has killed more than 33,000. In the last few months, schools have dealt with rising cases of antisemitism and Islamophobia, the deactivation of student-activist groups, suspension of staff, cases of doxxing and harassment and even reports of physical violence.

This week, Columbia University’s president is set to testify at a congressional hearing about campus safety, four months after a similar hearing resulted in the resignation of two Ivy League presidents. And the Department of Education launched a series of investigations last November into several universities where students have reported antisemitic or Islamophobic incidents.

Tabassum said she was denied a chance to let others see someone like her give a high-profile speech ― a South Asian hijab-wearing Muslim, someone “representative of communities and of the masses of people who never saw the institution made for them,” she told HuffPost. “I wanted to offer the hope that ... we can succeed [at] institutions like USC.”

But after having her invitation canceled, Tabassum said those hopes fell flat.

“How can we protect the expression of human rights and protect that expression for the sake of all communities, and not just those that I might most represent?” she asked.

According to USC’s Annenberg Media, some students and alumni said Tabassum’s social media activity ― which includes a link to a pro-Palestinian page ― was antisemitic. Guzman, however, wrote that this decision was made “based on various criteria ― which did not include social media presence.”

Since the university’s decision, Tabassum said she’s been overwhelmed by messages of both support and hate. People from her elementary school who she hasn’t spoken to in a decade reached out. Others have taken to Instagram to speculate about her ethnic background and her political views, and to applauded the university’s decision to revoke her invitation.

Rep. Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress, called the move “shameful” in an X post on Tuesday.

Tabassum “earned her spot after years of hard work and academic excellence. Bigotry towards minority students can’t be normalized,” she wrote.

The university said it will not be selecting a replacement for Tabassum at the main graduation ceremony, which was scheduled for May 10. Approximately 65,000 people are expected to attend the ceremony for the school’s roughly 19,000 graduates, according to Annenberg Media.

“I was hoping to use my commencement speech to inspire my classmates with a message of hope,” Tabassum wrote in her statement. “By canceling my speech, USC is only caving to fear and rewarding hatred.”

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