Letters to the Editor: Opposing views on USC's decision to cancel valedictorian's speech

Los Angeles, California - April 18: USC students participate in a silent march in support of Asna Tabassum, whose graduation speech has been cancelled by USC administration at University of Southern California on Thursday, April 18, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. Asna Tabassum, a graduating senior at USC, was selected as valedictorian and offered a traditional slot to speak at the 2024 graduation. After on-and-off campus groups criticized the decision and the university said it received threats, it pulled her from the graduation speakers schedule.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC students march in support of valedictorian Asna Tabassum on Thursday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

To the editor: Well, isn't this interesting. It's often a conservative speaker who gets canceled after being invited to speak at a college for "security" reasons. Now, it's a pro-Palestinian speaker, USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum. ("USC got it wrong in canceling valedictorian’s speech. Here’s what the school should do now," Opinion, April 17)

Isn't it about time nobody got canceled out of fear of a violent reaction on the part of some students or other protesters? If Tabassum is OK with speaking even under those conditions, why can't the university show the same courage?

Even if USC's security argument is honest, in my opinion it's still cowardly. Some of the greatest people in history would never have become great had they backed down from making themselves heard out of fear of the consequences.

Phil Hyman, Van Nuys


To the editor: USC had the good sense to invite Tabassum to present the traditional valedictorian address to its graduating class of 2024 — and the bad judgment to rescind that invitation on the claimed basis of security trumping free speech and tradition.

As pointed out by op-ed article authors David N. Myers and Salam Al-Marayati, security seems an unconvincing reason, especially when USC and other universities invite many famous, controversial speakers, including presidents.

Tabassum, a stellar biomedical engineering major (and a Muslim), says she will devote her knowledge to creating tools to improve the health and life of all human beings. As a proud graduate of USC's Keck School of Medicine, I applaud her humanitarian vision and am saddened by USC's failure to honor that vision.

Robert Vinetz, Los Angeles


To the editor: The naivete of USC President Carol Folt and Provost Andrew Guzman is appalling.

To have apparently not checked every single online posting of the 100 qualified finalists for the position of valedictorian was a major oversight. In today's world, most job applicants are carefully screened prior to an interview.

Now this student has become a kind of spokesperson for her cause, and she will receive far more attention than deserved.

Aviva Monosson, Los Angeles


To the editor: The question is not about free speech, but whether it's the right forum.

Graduation is supposed to be a happy day that focuses on the students and their futures. It shouldn't be a forum for making political speeches on issues happening halfway around the world, and where the entire audience is forced to listen whether they want to or not.

USC should set aside a space where people on all sides can choose to debate Mideast issues.

Stewart Chesler, Granada Hills


To the editor: Let me add my voice to those who say, "Let her speak."

As a Jewish USC alumnus and someone who is very pro-Israel, I stand firmly in the belief that this issue falls squarely in the realm of free speech. This idea was never more eloquently expressed than by the French philosopher Voltaire when he said, "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

USC's statement, "Our north star is protecting the safety of our community," while poetic, is disingenuous. USC's north star seems to be money and taking as much possession of as much land in the community as it can buy.

Richard Agata, Los Angeles


To the editor: The USC valedictorian's speech was effectively canceled last Oct. 7, when Israel was attacked.

USC is a private institution and can limit who speaks at its events. The valedictorian can give her speech on Figueroa, if she so desires.

William Carroll, Carlsbad


To the editor: As an alumna of USC who earned a doctorate in 1976, and as a retired college faculty member, I urge the university to reverse its cancellation of the valedictorian's speech.

With her speech not yet written, Tabassum has been quoted as saying that she wanted to touch on "how we must continue to use our education as a privilege to inform ourselves and ultimately make a change in the world."

We live in a world of dissent, divisiveness, attack and retaliation. Graduates should be equipped to navigate media reports, public discourse and academic analyses, knowing how to find the truth and reject half-truths and falsehoods. Fear should not be the motivating factor in taking action to "change the world."

This issue is broader than security. USC should model courage in the face of opposing viewpoints, honesty in upholding Tabassum's ability to deliver the commencement address, and fidelity to the educational values of expressing truth, thinking independently and fearlessly expressing one's values.

Lenore Navarro Dowling, Los Angeles


To the editor: I actually laughed out loud when read this in Myers' and Al-Marayati's op-ed article: "Universities should resist the toxic political culture that locks is on our echo chambers, where we are exposed only to those views that are to our liking."

I've never read so many complaints in The Times' Opinion section when conservative speakers have been canceled.

A more honest quote would've been this: "We certainly believe in universities exposing students to those views that are to our liking and very much believe that any opposing views should not be heard at all."

Milt Hausner, Sherman Oaks


To the editor: I'm a 96-year-old World War II veteran and Jewish. Let her speak!

Morton Miller, Los Angeles

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.