USC cancels Muslim valedictorian's commencement speech, citing safety concerns, Middle East tensions

ByAlisha Ebrahimji and Melissa Alonso, CNN
Wednesday, April 17, 2024
USC cancels Muslim valedictorian's commencement speech, citing safety concerns
The University of Southern California has canceled a student valedictorian's commencement speech out of safety concerns concerning her pro-Palestinian views.

The University of Southern California has canceled a student valedictorian's commencement speech out of safety concerns concerning her pro-Palestinian views.

"After careful consideration, we have decided that our student valedictorian will not deliver a speech at commencement," Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Andrew T. Guzman said in a letter to students on Monday. "While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety."

USC said the decision was based on potential threats regarding the selection of the valedictorian.

The student, Asna Tabassum, is a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim who majored in biomedical engineering and minored in resistance to genocide, according to a statement published through the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Tabassum was open about her pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel views on social media.

The discussion around her selection took on an "alarming tenor," according to Guzman.

"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 said.

Graduates attend the University Of Southern California's commencement in 2017 in Los Angeles.
Jerritt Clark/Getty Images/File via CNN Newsource

Tabassum criticized the university for canceling her speech, saying in a statement that she learned through her studies that "ordinary people are capable of unspeakable acts of violence when they are taught hate fueled by fear."

"And due to widespread fear, I was hoping to use my commencement speech to inspire my classmates with a message of hope," Tabassum said. She added that by canceling her speech, "USC is only caving to fear and rewarding hatred."

Tabassum was criticized by some on social media for a website linked on her social media profile that calls Zionism a "racist settler-colonial ideology that advocates for a Jewish ethnostate built on Palestinian land."

The site later continues, "One Palestinian state would mean Palestinian liberation, and the complete abolishment of the state of Israel. This way is the only way towards justice; both Arabs and Jews can live together without an ideology that specifically advocates for the ethnic cleansing of one of them. Palestinians would be allowed to return home, and millions of Palestinians would not have to live under occupation and apartheid."

Tensions have been high on college campuses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, in which Hamas terrorists invaded Israel on Oct. 7, after which the Israeli military began its bombardment of the Gaza Strip in what Israeli forces say was to address the Hamas threat.

In the Gaza Strip, at least 33,000 people have been killed and more than 76,000 others have been wounded by Israeli forces since Oct. 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health.

In Israel, at least 1,200 people have been killed and 6,900 others have been injured by Hamas and other Palestinian militants since Oct. 7, according to Israeli officials.

"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," Guzman said.

USC -- which expects a crowd of 65,000 for the commencement festivities on May 10 -- said the focus of the ceremony should be "on the tremendous accomplishments of our 19,000-plus graduates, their friends, their families, and the staff and faculty who have been such a critical part of their journeys."