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USC cancels pro-Palestinian valedictorian's speech, citing security concerns

USC cancels Class of 2024 valedictorian’s speech
USC cancels Class of 2024 valedictorian’s speech 01:57

USC's valedictorian will not be permitted to deliver a speech at the university's commencement ceremony due to concerns about security, the school's provost announced Monday. The valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, drew criticism over her views about the Middle East conflict and social media links that opponents say promoted "antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric."

"While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety," Provost Andrew Guzman wrote in a message to the university community. "This decision is not only necessary to maintain the safety of our campus and students, but is consistent with the fundamental legal obligation -- including the expectations of federal regulators -- that universities act to protect students and keep our campus community safe. 

"It applies the same values and criteria that we have used in the past to guide our actions. In no way does it diminish the remarkable academic achievements of any student considered or selected for valedictorian. To be clear: 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." 

2022 graduates attend The University of Southern Californias commencement ceremony
Dr. Carol L. Folt, president of the University of Southern California, addresses graduates attending the 2022 graduates at The University of Southern California commencement ceremony on Friday, May 13, 2022, in Los Angeles, CA.  Jason Armond

Tabassum, a biomedical engineering major, who is Muslim, had been previously announced as this year's valedictorian. She said that she was honored when she learned of her selection.

"The core message I wanted to get across was one of hope," Tabassum told CBS News correspondent Carter Evans.

That changed days later though, when the university rescinded the offer.

"I was never given the evidence that any safety concerns and that any security concerns were founded," Tabassum said. 

USC cancels valedictorian's graduation speech amid safety concerns over pro-Palestinian post 03:27

In letters sent to USC administrators, critics accused her of posting on a social media account a link to a website that refers to Zionists as "racist-settlers."

"Ms. Tabassum unabashedly and openly endorses the link's calls for `the complete abolishment of the state of israel (sic),"' according to a letter circulated for critics to submit to administrators. "As if the unqualified command for abolition of the State of Israel was unclear in any way, Ms. Tabassum's link reinforces racism with another link, urging readers to `reject the hegemonic efforts to demand that Palestinians accept that Israel has a right to exist as a . . . Jewish state."'

Immediately following Guzman's announcement, the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Los Angeles issued a statement demanding that the decision be reversed and that Tabassum be permitted to speak. 

Tabassum released a statement through CAIR-LA, saying "anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices have subjected me to a campaign of racist hatred because of my uncompromising belief in human rights for all." 

"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," she said. "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.

"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."

Through it all, Tabassum says she stands by her view. 

"I'm not apologizing for the link that I put in my Instagram," she told Evans. "What I am saying is that I'm committed to human rights. I'm committed to the human rights for all people."

CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush called the USC decision "cowardly" and the reasoning "disingenuous." 

"Asna is an incredibly accomplished student whose academic and extracurricular accomplishments made her the ideal and historic recipient of this year's valedictorian's honor," Ayloush said in a statement. "The university can, should and must ensure a safe environment for graduation rather than taking the unprecedented step of cancelling a valedictorian's speech.

"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." 

Guzman, in his campus message, said the uproar over the valedictorian selection has taken on "an alarming tenor."

"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," Guzman wrote. "We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses. 

"As always, and particularly when tensions are running so high across the world, we must prioritize the safety of our community," he continued. "And as we do every year, we have been monitoring our commencement security needs based on all the information we have and the facts on the ground. Our (Department of Public Safety) and expert campus safety team are uniquely prepared to evaluate potential threats, and we have consulted with them about the current situation, taking into account everything we know about our reality, as well as the unprecedented risks we are seeing at other campuses and across the world. We are resolute in our commitment to maintain and prioritize the existing safety and well-being of our USC community during the coming weeks, and allowing those attending commencement to focus on the celebration our graduates deserve."

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