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Editorial: USC’s barring of valedictorian commencement speaker infringes upon free expression

By Editorial Board

April 21, 2024 8:29 p.m.

Earning over a 3.98 GPA as a biomedical engineering student is no easy feat. Nor is being selected out of hundreds of academically qualified candidates to be class valedictorian.

On April 2, Asna Tabassum was formally named class of 2024 valedictorian at the USC Academic Honors Convocation for her academic excellence and outstanding dedication to community service. Afterward, she surprised her parents, who burst out in tears when they saw the cake she had decorated with the words “Val part two,” since she had previously been named high school valedictorian but was unable to celebrate due to the pandemic.

Just two weeks later, this honor was stripped away from her via a communitywide email from USC Provost Andrew Guzman.

“After careful consideration, we have decided that our student valedictorian will not deliver a speech at commencement,” Guzman said in the email. “While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety.”

Guzman’s email came less than a week after student group Trojans for Israel publicly accused Tabassum of antisemitism for liking posts and linking her social media account to pro-Palestinian resources amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The link identifies Zionism as a “racist settler-colonial ideology” and calls for the state of Israel to be abolished.

USC’s decision to revoke Tabassum’s valedictorian speech is unprecedented, given that they’ve previously stood their ground on free speech in light of controversy.

The university’s refusal to disclose details on its threat assessment further casts legitimate doubts about whether its decisions were grounded on safety concerns. Guzman, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, claims that “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.”

The decision to characterize Tabassum’s valedictorian speech as a threat to public safety is an overreach on behalf of the administration. Even if safety were to be a legitimate concern for USC, deploying the necessary security force at commencement should not be an issue. According to Guzman, USC has “the largest university public safety departments in the country, with more than 300 Department of Public Safety (DPS) employees.”

In 2018, the university also defended its decision to allow conservative commentator Ben Shapiro – a controversial political figure, who is also a former Daily Bruin Opinion columnist – to speak on campus despite significant opposition from students. The Office of the Provost responded to the backlash against Shapiro in a statement: “We must not let this event divide us or leave people feeling vulnerable or silenced.”

For the administration to censor Tabassum in order to prevent any tensions from arising during commencement only puts the university in murky waters.

The safety concern is nothing more than the anticipation of hecklers over Tabassum’s stance on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, citing a pro-Palestinian link on Tabassum’s social media.

And despite the allegedly alarming threats Guzman points to as the reason for canceling Tabassum’s commencement speech, Tabassum told CNN that the school refused to provide her any details on the conducted threat assessment or whether she would be provided security measures at the ceremony taking place in two weeks.

Tabassum, who was unable to deliver her high school valedictorian speech due to the pandemic in 2020, has been wrongfully robbed of a much-deserved voice, spotlight and celebration for her relentless hard work. Moreover, this commencement – one for thousands of graduates who have already been deprived of a normal high school graduation – has become a political battlefield full of animosity, pushing the merits and achievements of Tabassum and her class into a mere shadow.

At this moment, there is no greater threat than censoring student voices and falling short of guaranteeing their First Amendment rights. And if USC truly believes in its self-proclaimed value of free speech on its campus, it must reinstate Tabassum’s valedictorian speech.

As Tabassum and an overwhelming amount of the student body fight on for her rightful honor and voice, her institution chooses to leave her in the dust. Such a prideful institution should know where their loyalties should lie.

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