First generation South Asian American Asna Tabassum’s valedictorian speech cancelled by USC

A section of the USC campus. PHOTO;

The University of Southern California announced Monday, April 15, 2024, that it will not have its valedictorian, who is Muslim and pro-Palestinian, speak at its commencement because officials worry about keeping the event safe amid fears of threats.

USC Provost Andrew Guzman said that “while this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety,” citing an obligation to minimize danger to the campus and community.

“This decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech,” he wrote in a statement announcing the decision. “There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

Asna Tabassum, the student selected as valedictorian, and Muslim advocacy groups view it as the silencing of a student.

“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,” she said in a statement released by the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“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,” added Tabassum, a biomedical engineering student. (Addon by News India Times – In her personal statement, Tabassum describes herself as follows — “I am a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim whose passion for service stems from the experience of my grandparents, who were unable to access lifesaving medical technology because they had been displaced by communal violence.”)

She described a meeting with administration officials Sunday in which the officials told her the school would not take added safety measures for her speech for “image” reasons, nor would they share any specific threats against her or the event.

CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush called on the university to reverse the decision, saying the school is “disingenuous” for blaming security concerns.

“The dishonest and defamatory attacks on Asna are nothing more than thinly-veiled manifestations of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism,” Ayloush said in a statement.

The decision comes as college campuses struggle to balance how to make sure students feel safe and stay safe. That on-campus tension reached new highs in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, as many students have protested the United States’ support for Israel’s retribution bombing and ground attacks in the Gaza Strip.

There have been flare-ups, including a chemical attack on pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University in New York in January. Months later, demonstrations at Columbia are still ongoing.

USC’s main commencement stage draws 65,000 people to campus. Guzman wrote that discussion about the valedictorian became alarming over the past several days.

“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,” he wrote.

Tabassum said her mind-set of thinking outside the box led her to being a valedictorian and toward her support of Palestinians and other marginalized groups.

“I am a student of history who chose to minor in resistance to genocide,” she wrote.



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