USC cancels Muslim valedictorian's speech

STORY: The University of Southern California (USC) has come under the spotlight this week after canceling a valedictorian speech from a Muslim student.

The school, regarded as one of California's most prestigious private universities, has defended their decision by citing safety concerns and tensions around the current conflict in the Middle East.

South Asian-American Muslim Asna Tabassum says she is being silenced by anti-Palestinian hatred for her views on human rights.

In a statement published by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the biomedical engineering major said she was "profoundly disappointed" by the decision.

Reuters spoke with executive director of CAIR, Hussam Ayloush:

“What took her by surprise is the way her university acted. You know, the way the university threw her under the bus for her was unexpected.”

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 post advocating for "one Palestinian state" and the "complete abolishment of the state of Israel."

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

Ayloush said the university had not asked for an advanced copy of Tabassum's address before withdrawing her invitation to speak, and that she had not even begun working on her speech.

He says USC’s decision undermines free speech, and fuels Islamophobia.

“In this case, the university is saying, well, we talk about free speech, but we're not going to necessarily support and protect free speech, because she is being penalized for using free speech to stand for human rights for all people, including Palestinians. In a way, by caving in to that pressure, they're fueling Islamophobia because they're rewarding such acts. They're making it okay.”

USC Provost Andrew Guzman said in a statement Monday the school’s decision was made solely in the interest of campus security.

It added quote: “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."

Tabassum said USC officials refused to share details of their security assessment in a meeting with her.

She said she was told the school was capable of implementing appropriate safety measures for the speech, but opted not to because a tougher security posture was "not what the university wants to 'present as an image.'"

USC did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

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.