USC students rally in support of valedictorian whose speech was canceled

Amid a sea of Palestinian flags and signs advocating for “Justice for Asna,” a multitude of University of Southern California students united on Thursday to stride in solidarity with a Muslim valedictorian whose slated commencement address got axed by the university.

Wearing hoodies and masks symbolizing the gagging of the valedictorian, the students congregated near the iconic Tommy Trojan statue at the campus core before embarking on a march, echoing “let her speak” and brandishing signs echoing the same in the distinctive colors of Palestine – red, green, and black.

This demonstration marked the most recent opposition to the university’s call to nix the May 10 speech. The valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, boasts a major in biomedical engineering and a minor touching on resistance to genocide. USC stated the speech’s cancellation arises from security concerns, indicating the decision was a product of discussions with campus law enforcement, yet refraining from specifying the exact security threats encountered by USC.

“Although a tough choice, it was imperative to safeguard the USC community in the imminent weeks and permit commencement attendees to concentrate on the well-earned celebration of our graduates,” highlighted the university. “The safety of our community remains paramount.”

Students march near the Tommy Trojan statue in support of a Muslim valedictorian whose planned commencement speech was canceled by the University of Southern California on Thursday, citing unspecified safety concerns.
Credit: Delilah Brumer / EdSource

Conversely, pro-Palestinian student factions and their allies slammed the university for perpetuating Islamophobia through its resolution.

USC student Aisha Patel expressed her disappointment, stating, “It’s a blow that they won’t allow her to speak,” emphasizing how the move silences individuals who share her appearance and background.

Abed Kassem, an international student from Syria studying at USC, was taken aback by the speech cancellation, saying, “I believed that the U.S. was a land of free speech where I could voice my opinions. It’s disheartening to witness this. If one can’t express themselves in America, then where can they?”

Notably, no pro-Israel demonstrators were spotted at the protest.

Tensions between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students have escalated sharply at USC and other campuses post the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent retaliatory actions from Israel, which claimed numerous lives and led to significant casualties in Gaza, raising concerns of hate, antisemitism, and Islamophobia across educational institutions.

USC administrators have been embroiled in a complex conundrum regarding freedom of speech amid a sharp division over perceived hateful speech. The decision to revoke Tabassum’s speech, while not seen as a freedom of speech matter by USC, has been met with criticism from free speech experts, signaling concerns about the campus climate.

USC students rally in support of a Muslim valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, after her planned commencement speech was canceled .
Credit: Delilah Brumer / EdSource

Following USC’s initial announcement of Tabassum as the commencement speaker, criticism from various pro-Israel groups surfaced, with scrutiny directed at her Instagram bio, igniting controversies prelude to the decision to revoke her speech.

Feuds spun among various groups, notably expressed by Rabbi Dov Wagner, reflecting Jewish students’ angst at USC over the perceived antisemitism and extremist views attributed to Tabassum.

Amid the intensifying discord, USC remains embattled with external voices influencing the university’s decisions, amidst claims of intimidation and harassment.

Tabassum herself expressed surprise at USC’s actions, feeling abandoned and confronted with a wave of adversity.

Support for Tabassum has been vocalized by numerous student and local organizations, urging USC to reverse its call for the speech cancellation.

Despite criticism from free speech proponents, USC affirms its stance that the decision to revoke the speech aligns with security concerns rather than muzzling the freedom of speech.

 Delilah BrumerCalifornia Student Journalism Corps.

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