USC Faces Criticism Over Alleged Cancellation of Pro-Palestinian Valedictorian’s Planned Speech

As the University of Southern California’s Class of 2024 prepares to graduate next month, when some 65,000 people are expected to gather at the Los Angeles campus for its May 10 commencement ceremony, the school has sparked controversy over its cancellation on Monday of the undergraduate valedictorian’s planned speech amid concerns about her pro-Palestinian activism. It’s just the latest flashpoint in tensions that have been simmering for months and have spurred debate about limits on free speech in the U.S. since the outbreak of Israel’s war in Gaza.

Andrew T. Guzman, the university’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, announced in an to the USC community on Monday that graduating senior Asna Tabassum, who had been selected as this year’s valedictorian, would not be delivering a traditional valedictorian address due to safety concerns. Tabassum, a Muslim American biomedical engineering major and student activist from Chino Hills, Calif., had come under fire from pro-Israel groups after the Office of the Provost as valedictorian from nearly 100 straight-A applicants for the title earlier this month.

“Unfortunately, over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor,” Guzman said in the email, which was also on the university’s website alongside answers to frequently asked questions on the selection process and USC’s free speech policies. “The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East,” Guzman said, “has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.”

Trojans for Israel, a pro-Israel group at USC, had school authorities last week to reconsider Tabassum as valedictorian, claiming that she “openly traffics antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric” and that her participation would cause the ceremony to become an “unwelcoming and intolerant environment” for Jewish students. Also last week, We Are Tov, a social media advocacy group founded last year to combat antisemitism, : “Being selected valedictorian is an honor, and we are positive [Tabassum] is academically qualified for the position, but it’s unacceptable that she promotes antisemitic views.” Both groups cited Tabassum’s social media , which includes a link to a site that they claim promotes antisemitic rhetoric, such as calling Zionism a “racist” ideology and advocating for the “complete abolishment” of Israel.

Tabassum responded to the news of the cancellation of her speech in a , saying, “This campaign to prevent me from addressing my peers at commencement has evidently accomplished its goal.” She added that she was “both shocked by this decision and profoundly disappointed that the University is succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

Tabassum also said she is doubtful of the official reason—safety concerns—given for her speech’s cancellation “because I am not aware of any specific threats against me or the university” and “because my request for the details underlying the university’s threat assessment has been denied.”

Supporters of Tabassum have echoed her frustrations and accused USC of using safety as a pretext for censorship.

“USC cannot hide its cowardly decision behind a disingenuous concern for ‘security,’” Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA), said in a . “The dishonest and defamatory attacks on Asna are nothing more than thinly-veiled manifestations of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism, which have been weaponized against college students across the country who speak up for human rights—and for Palestinian humanity.”

CAIR-LA started a calling for USC to reverse its decision. “The university can, should and must ensure a safe environment for graduation rather than taking the unprecedented step of cancelling a valedictorian’s speech,” Ayloush said.

Sign our LA chapter’s action alert calling on reinstate the graduation speech of Class of 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum, which the school cancelled in response to dishonest attacks and harassment from anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian bigots: — CAIR National (@CAIRNational)

The Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national advocacy group, similarly denounced what it described in a as USC’s “suppression of free speech and academic freedom” and “capitulation to external pressures from political groups.” The group also said Tabassum’s “silencing” was reflective of a broader trend: “Nationwide, students advocating for Palestinian rights face undue censorship and are subjected to harassment and institutional pushback under the guise of maintaining order or neutrality.”

Pro-Palestinan campus groups have to reinstate Tabassum’s speaking role at the commencement ceremony, including the USC chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which said it was “appalled” by the university’s move. The USC Palestine Justice Faculty Group said in a that it “unequivocally rejects” the Provost’s decision, which it described as “another example of USC’s egregious pattern of supporting anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim racism.”

USC, like other universities around the country, has been roiled by divisions over conflict in the Middle East since . Several months ago, the school when it banned from campus—though later reinstated—John Strauss, a Jewish economics professor, after a video went viral of him confronting pro-Palestinian student protesters who were calling for a ceasefire.

In November, USC a website clarifying its policies on freedom of expression. On its page, it said that even statements that “may cause serious discomfort, alarm, and concern” posted on students’ social media pages “would likely be treated as protected speech if it does not include a specific threat against an individual and does not rise to the level of harassment or discrimination that the university is legally permitted to prohibit.”

In his announcement of the cancellation of Tabassum’s valedictorian speech, Provost Guzman rejected that the decision had anything to do with freedom of speech. “While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety,” he said. “There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”