Muslim valedictorian urges USC to allow her speech

STORY: A Muslim valedictorian from the University of Southern California is pushing her school to reverse their decision to cancel her commencement speech.

South Asian-American biomedical engineering major Asna Tabassum was chosen as a valedictorian from nearly 100 qualified applicants– a dream come true at a prestigious university.

Then, earlier this week, the school announced that Tabassum would not be able to speak at this year's commencement ceremony, citing security concerns and tensions around the current conflict in the Middle East.

Tabassum says she is being silenced by anti-Palestinian hatred for her views on human rights.

The 21-year-old spoke with Reuters on Wednesday.

“It's a matter of the freedom of expression and the freedom of speech. And I, and I urge USC to stay true to those values as an academic institution, to again reverse the decision.”

Several pro-israel student groups on campus called for Tabassum’s removal as commencement speaker earlier this month.

They claimed that she had espoused antisemitic views in the past, citing an Instagram link to a pro-Palestinian post advocating for "complete abolishment of Israel."

Tabassum told local media she posted the link five years earlier and did not author the post.

To her understanding, some parties also took issue with other posts she has liked more recently that are critical of Israel and its war in Gaza.

"'The claims against me are that I have a link in my bio as well as I've liked posts that disengage antisemitism from anti-Zionism.”

Tabassum doesn’t see the connection between the 'healthy debate' surrounding some of her activity online and genuine security threats.

In fact, Tabassum said USC officials refused to share details of their security assessment in a meeting with her, which she characterized as a ‘one way conversation.’

In an emailed statement to Reuters on Wednesday, USC reiterated its decision to cancel the speech.

It added the cancelation was not based on the background or viewpoint of the valedictorian, but instead on a review of the situation from a safety and security standpoint.

USC did not outline what kind of security risks were feared by the institution and if there were any threats made.

Tabassum said the university had not asked to review her speech before making their decision.

“You know what? I have no, I had no idea what my speech was going to be about, you know. And in fact, I might have thought of maybe doing something about the importance of having fun or the importance of having hope.”

Public safety officials and civil rights advocates have reported a rise in hate crimes against Muslims, Jews, Arabs and Palestinians in the United States since the start of the Israel-Gaza war in October.

They have also noted an escalation in tensions related to the conflict on college campuses.

USC’s commencement ceremony, set for May 10, is expected to draw 65,000 people to its downtown Los Angeles campus.