Pro-Palestinian valedictorian speaks out after USC cancels speech

A controversial decision by leaders at the University of Southern California relates to the debate raging on many U.S. campuses over the war in Gaza. The school says it's canceling a planned graduation speech by its valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, due to safety concerns. This follows the online response to a pro-Palestinian link that Tabassum posted on her Instagram account.

▶ Watch Video: USC cancels valedictorian’s graduation speech amid safety concerns over pro-Palestinian post

The University of Southern California valedictorian whose planned graduation speech was canceled due to what the school referred to as safety concerns told CBS News that she feels “betrayed” by the academic institution. 

Asna Tabassum, 22, majored in biomedical engineering and has a minor in “Resistance to Genocide,” an interdisciplinary series of courses that researches the “causes, results and representations of attempted genocide, as well as resistance to genocidal mass violence,” according to USC’s website

Critics said Tabassum shared social media posts that promoted “antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric,” and highlighted a link in her public Instagram profile to a website that refers to Zionism, a movement that calls for the development and protection of a Jewish state, as a “racist settler-colonial ideology.”  

Tabassum, who is Muslim and pro-Palestinian, said the link was from years ago, and told CBS News’ Carter Evans her social media accounts have always been private. 

“I’m not apologizing for the link that I put in my Instagram. What I am saying is that I’m committed to human rights. And I’m committed to the human rights for all people,” Tabassum said. “A lot of the campaign against me has been, for example, claiming that I don’t value the life of Jews. That’s simply not true.” 

Asna Tabassum
Asna Tabassum

CBS News

In a statement released through the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Los Angeles, Tabassum said she has been subject to a “campaign of racist hatred” from “anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices” because of her “uncompromising belief in human rights for all.” 

Tabassum told CBS News that her opinions about the world are informed by what she learned from her USC courses, including the “Resistance to Genocide” minor. She said she was honored when, two weeks ago, she was chosen to speak at the school’s commencement ceremony, and said she planned to share a “core message” of “hope.” However, just days later, the offer was rescinded. 

USC provost Andrew Guzman said social media discussions regarding Tabassum’s selection “had taken on an alarming tenor” and “escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security,” prompting the cancelation. About 65,000 people are expected to attend the commencement ceremony in May.

“While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety,” Guzman wrote in a message to the university community. “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.” 

Tabassum said that she had not “received any physical threats,” but “won’t discount the amount of hatred” she has seen online. However, she told CBS News that she “was never given the evidence that any safety concerns and that any security concerns were founded.” 

USC valedictorian responds after university cancels graduation speech


“I think anyone who’s watching this … can draw their own conclusion,” Tabassum said. “I look at what I look like, I am who I am. I stand up for what I stand for.”  

In his letter, Guzman said that the school’s decision has “nothing to do with freedom of speech.” 

“There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement,” he wrote. “The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.” 

Tabassum said she disagreed with Guzman’s statement. 

“It’s expression, it’s academic discourse,” Tabassum said. “And in many ways, it is speech that is being stifled.”

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