University of Southern California cancels commencement speech for its Muslim valedictorian, citing security concerns

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What was supposed to be a moment of celebration for Asna Tabassum, the University of Southern California’s 2024 valedictorian, turned into a disappointment after the university denied her the opportunity to give a speech at graduation for reasons of security.

“Over the past few days, the discussion surrounding the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tone,” USC Chancellor Andrew Guzmán said in a statement. campus-wide online letter. “The intensity of feeling, 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 security and safety risks.” interruption at the beginning”.

Tabassum – a “first-generation South Asian American Muslim,” according to a statement she issued through the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles – would have delivered her speech at the graduation ceremony on May 10.

“I am shocked by this decision and deeply disappointed that the University is succumbing to a campaign of hate aimed at silencing my voice,” Tabassum said at the online declaration. “I am not surprised by those who try to spread hate. “I am surprised that my own university, my home for four years, has abandoned me.”

As tensions in the Middle East rage, the deadly war in Gaza has caused a serious humanitarian crisis and stoked anguish around the world as supporters of Israel and Hamas advocate online and on the streetsmany of them in favor of a ceasefire.

The change to USC’s commencement program only affects plans for a student speech, the university’s associate vice president for Strategic and Crisis Communications, Lauren Bartlett, told CNN.

Bartlett declined to say what security concerns prompted the school’s decision, saying, “In the interest of security, we do not disclose specific threats around the assessment.”

For his part, Tabassum harbors “serious doubts about whether USC’s decision to revoke my invitation to speak is based solely on security,” he said in the online declaration.

The doubts persist “because I am not aware of any specific threat 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 provided with any further security to be able to speak initially.” ”said Tabassum.

When asked if Tabassum will still be allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony and what security measures were in place to ensure his safety, Bartlett said he did not have that information. Native of Chino Hills, California, Tabassum study biomedical engineering with a specialization in genocide resistance and an interest in equity in global healthcare.

Instead of canceling Tabassum’s speech, the university should take more steps to ensure a safe graduation environment, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles.

“Although USC has maintained Asna’s position as valedictorian, the cowardly decision to cancel her speech strengthens voices of hate and censorship, violates USC’s obligation to protect its students, and sends a terrible signal to both Muslim students and Muslims. of the USC as well as all the students who dare to express themselves. support for Palestinian humanity,” Ayloush said in an online statement.

Bartlett also had no information about whether the school considered allowing Tabassum to share his speech before or after the graduation ceremony, he said.

“To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of expression,” said Rector Guzmán. “There is no right to free speech to speak at a graduation ceremony. The question here is how best to keep the campus safe, period.”

“While this is disappointing,” he said, “tradition must give way to security.”

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