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Silencing Asna Tabassum For Safety

Asna Tabassum was chosen to give the valedictory address at the University of Southern California graduation. It’s quite an honor, and one she earned through her efforts and accomplishments, having achieved a grade point average above 3.98 with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in resistance to genocide.

And then it was decided that she should be silenced.

Andrew T. Guzman, the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said the decision was based on maintaining “campus security and safety” in the email. The valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, said in a public statement later Monday she feels the university has “abandoned” her.

“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,” said Guzman in the message to the USC community.

There were objections to her choice, not because she didn’t deserve the honor, but because she supported Palestinians on social media.

The decision was made after days of complaints from students, alumni and others who viewed the valedictorian’s social media activity as antisemitic.

Student groups and other on-campus clubs, such as Chabad and Trojans for Israel, called for the “reconsideration” of the valedictorian. The debate is similar to what’s happening on college campuses across America, and illustrates a deep divide only exacerbated by events in Gaza since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

It’s understandable that some will condemn her views about Gaza, but there was nothing to suggest that her valedictory remarks would be controversial, no less call for Jihad or the eradication of Israel “from the river to the sea.” Even more to the point, there was nothing to suggest that there would be any threat to safety if she were allowed to speak. Just because some disputed the decision to make Tabassum valedictorian in no suggests that there would be any action against her at graduation, no less a threat to her or anyone else’s safety.

USC announced that valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s commencement speech has been canceled, stating it was “necessary to maintain the safety of our campus and students”

‘I am surprised that my own university has abandoned me,’ Tabassum said in a statement https://t.co/YE4LxVZ9UE pic.twitter.com/SSNw83Ppya

— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) April 16, 2024

Or perhaps her valedictory speech would be all about Gaza, all about the deaths of Palestinians, all about the apartheid settler-colonial ethno-state of Israel. It may well have been offensive to a swathe of students and courted partisan outrage. One could well argue that this would not have been an appropriate topic or a university graduation, where speaking of the bright future ahead of students or reminiscences of good days in college are more standard fare.

So what? If she chose the path of offense in the name of peace, she wouldn’t be the first graduation speaker to choose poorly. And even if her speech offended some, that does not make graduation unsafe.

I am honored to have been selected as USC Class of 2024 Valedictorian. Although this should
have been a time of celebration for my family, friends, professors, and classmates, 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. 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.

This is classic cancel culture, a person chosen to speak who, as a consequence of objectors, was canceled by her university. She’s quite right. USC abandoned her. Once having chosen her as valedictorian, they owed her the fortitude to speak her mind, whether her words would prove controversial or benign.

But the university’s fallback on the excuse of “safety” is revealing.

In a meeting with the USC Provost and the Associate Senior Vice President of Safety and Risk
Assurance on April 14, I asked about the alleged safety concerns and was told 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.”

Because I am not aware of any specific threats against me or the university, because my
request for the details underlying the university’s threat assessment has been denied, and because I am not being provided any increased safety to be able to speak at commencement,
there remain serious doubts about whether USC’s decision to revoke my invitation to speak is
made solely on the basis of safety.

If there is any image a university should seek to present, it’s one of free speech, academic freedom and, more than anything else, integrity. Did they fear a protest? If so, and there is no indication that any protest was planned beyond the initial complaints as to Tabassum’s selection, there is no reason to assume it would present a risk to anyone’s safety. Hearing unpleasant words from a speaker are not a safety threat. And notably, there is still no basis to believe that Tabassum had any intention of saying anything so inflammatory as to raise anyone’s cackles, no less evoke a troublesome response.

USC has disgraced itself by abandoning its valedictorian and abandoning the the fundamental principle of free speech. If anyone in the audience finds it offensive, whether because of her words or because her social media accounts reflect a view with which they disagree, grow up. If any of this makes anyone feel unsafe, that’s their problem, not Asna Tabassum’s and certainly not USC’s.

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