Pro-Palestinian Valedictorian Continues to Speak Out After USC Canceled Her Graduation Speech

“I challenge us to respond to ideological discomfort with dialogue and learning, not bigotry and censorship,” Asna Tabassum said after USC said they were concerned about "maintaining campus safety."

Pro-Palestinian Valedictorian Continues to Speak Out After USC Canceled Her Graduation Speech

On Monday, the University of Southern California announced that this year’s May 10 commencement ceremony would go without its usual three to five-minute valedictorian speech in the name of “maintaining campus safety and security.” Except, there doesn’t seem to be any reported or specific safety threats to the ceremony or the campus—it was seemingly called off because their valedictorian is vocal about the fact that she doesn’t support genocide.

Asna Tabassum, the valedictorian of USC’s spring graduating class, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that she was informed she couldn’t address her peers due to recent online attacks that claim she’s antisemitic. Tabassum, a South Asian-American Muslim biomedical engineering major who was chosen as Valedictorian by a committee from almost 100 applicants, has a link in her Instagram bio to a website called “Free Palestine Carrd.” However, Tabassum didn’t write the post and, according to the Guardian, the link has been in her bio for the last five years.

According to the Times, a number of pro-Israel groups pointed to the site as evidence she was anti-semitic and demanded the university forbid her from making the speech. Among these groups is Trojans for Israel, who said the website’s rhetoric “must be denounced as antisemitic bigotry.” The site is basically just a number of links you can click to “learn about what’s happening in Palestine.” But people specifically seem upset about a slide on the site that calls for the abolition of the state of Israel.

“The abolishment of the state of Israel, I’d like to clarify, is the abolishment of an apartheid system,” Tabassum told CNN’s Abby D. Phillip when asked about that specific sentence. “It inherently is a system that subjugates Palestinians as dehumanized and it subjugates Palestinian life as not worth the same as other human life.” She added that simply answering yes or no would be “an injustice to the issue” and that the issues are all “worth discussion.”

Tabassum told the Times that she’s not antisemitic, she’s just against the ongoing genocide in Palestine that’s killed more than 33,000 people and left 2 million Gazans in near-famine conditions. “The university has betrayed me and caved into a campaign of hatred,” she said about the school’s response to the online accusations.

She further claimed that the university didn’t share its specific security concerns, nor did it offer her another method of participating in the ceremony.

As for the university’s defense, Provost Andrew Guzman claimed in a statement that the social media discussion around Tabassum had taken on “an alarming tenor.”

Unfortunately, over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor. 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.

“While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety,” the statement continued. “The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

When the Times asked USC for comment, Joel Curran, the university’s senior vice president of communications, said the “final decision” was with President Carol Folt. Folt, the outlet noted, wasn’t available for an interview.

“It’s no longer about free speech. It’s no longer about me. It is about when the university silences me, they are silencing all these people,” Tabassum told the Times. “When you silence us, you make us louder. You make louder the aims of imparting hope and commitment to human rights and the responsibilities of graduates to use our education…to make the world a better place.”

In her own statement, Tabassum wrote: “As your class Valedictorian, I implore my USC classmates to think outside the box—to work towards a world where cries for equality and human dignity are not manipulated to be expressions of hatred. I challenge us to respond to ideological discomfort with dialogue and learning, not bigotry and censorship. And I urge us to see past our deepest fears and recognize the need to support justice for all people, including the Palestinian people.”

She has yet to say whether or not she will still attend the ceremony.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin