Fri. May 31st, 2024

Advocates fear for pro-Palestinian speakers after USC nixes valedictorian’s address

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May20,2024

The University of Southern California (USC) is under fire after it revoked the right of its pro-Palestinian valedictorian to speak at graduation, revealing what critics say is a free speech double standard and kicking off what’s expected to be a controversial year for commencement addresses. 

The school told Asna Tabassum she could not speak at commencement due to “safety concerns” after people were upset with her social media accounts, which have been accused of anti-Israel bias.

While First Amendment experts say schools have full control over who can speak at their ceremonies, they believe USC’s decision sets a bad precedent and deserves public outcry. 

“USC has invoked safety concerns, and anytime that happens, universities must be very transparent and must be very clear about what those safety concerns are, and they need to show their work and demonstrate that they could not sufficiently address those safety concerns,” said Graham Piro, the program officer for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). 

“Otherwise, they send the wrong message to campus because they say that if you express political views, that some find offensive, including the university, the university will take action to shut down an event,” Piro added. “Again, the university has the right to determine who’s speaking, but it has to be very careful that it doesn’t send a chilling message to campus and frankly, this is sending a very censorious message to campus.” 

USC is a private school, so it is not bound by the same First Amendment requirements as other institutions, but free speech experts say even at public colleges, administrators have broad authority over who participates in the graduation ceremony. 

USC Provost Andrew Guzman said in a statement this week that Tabassum would not be able to speak due to “safety concerns,” but he did not specify what the threats were or why the school could not adequately secure the event.  

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

“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 continued, adding, “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 Israel-Gaza war is likely to overshadow many graduation ceremonies across the country, as debate over the conflict has been vibrant on campuses since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. A major part of that debate has been what phrases or chants should be allowed on campuses due to concerns of antisemitism.  

On her social media, Tabassum linked to a site that said there needs to be a “complete abolishment” of Israel and that “Zionism is a racist settler-colonial ideology that advocates for a Jewish ethnostate built on Palestinian land.” 

USC’s Trojans for Israel was one of the campus groups that was outraged when Tabassum was announced as valedictorian.  

“Trojans for Israel strongly supports the right to free expression — including informed criticism of the Israeli government. However, rhetoric that denies the right of the Jewish people to self-determination or calls for the destruction of the only Jewish state in the world must be denounced as antisemitic bigotry,” the group said in a statement on Instagram, calling on the university to “reconsider their selection” for valedictorian.  

But others argue that since the war broke out that free speech has been limited for pro-Palestinian voices.  

“Over the last six months this has been going on. I would say for years, but especially for the last six months, it became very clear that students engaged in advocating for a free Palestine or equality for Palestinians are often targeted by their professors and the administration,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director for Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) — Los Angeles, which has been been working with Tabassum since her speech was put on ice.

“They’re subjected to bullying, defamation, doxing and threats merely for expressing support for the Palestinian people,” he added. 

Tabassum released a personal statement saying she has been subjected to “a campaign of racist hatred,” adding she feels her university has “abandoned” her. 

“In a meeting with the USC Provost and the Associate Senior Vice President of Safety and RiskAssurance on April 14, I asked about the alleged safety concerns and was told that theUniversity 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,’” Tabassum said in her statement.

Ayloush told The Hill that CAIR and Tabassum are looking into legal options but the university is also facing other consequences for its actions.

“The damage to the reputation and image of USC as one of the most prestigious universities in America, appearing to capitulate to threats from outside groups purely because of […] the human rights advocacy of their students for them” is the biggest punishment they are facing, Ayloush said.

The school did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

Others say the university simply wanted to avoid a politically charged event and came up with a subpar excuse to avoid it.

“It just looks like the university changed its mind about having her as a speaker and didn’t want to fess up to the reality that they picked somebody that they now regret picking and instead, wave it off to security concerns. It doesn’t seem credible, frankly,” said David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech.

Commencement addresses frequently hit on controversial issues — such as abortion in 2022, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — and this year will be no different.

FIRE’s Piro expects speeches this year will be “filled with controversy because of what a hot-button and controversial issue the Israel-Palestine situation is right now.”

“And frankly, this event, as far as we know, the first of these sorts of incidents involving commencement this year, did not set a good precedent,” he said.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “Advocates fear for pro-Palestinian speakers after USC nixes valedictorian’s address”
  1. Do you think USC is justified in revoking Asna Tabassum’s speech based on safety concerns, or is this a form of censorship?

  2. Advocates fear for pro-Palestinian speakers after USC nixes valedictorian’s address. Asna Tabassum’s situation is concerning and highlights the importance of protecting free speech on campus. USC should be transparent about their decision and not set a dangerous precedent for silencing differing opinions.

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