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The University of Southern California cancels its Muslim valedictorian’s commencement speech, citing safety concerns

Graduates attend the University Of Southern California's commencement in 2017 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Jerritt Clark/Getty Images/File via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — What was supposed to be a time of celebration for Asna Tabassum – the University of Southern California’s 2024 valedictorian – has turned to disappointment after the university denied her the chance to give a speech at commencement over security concerns.

“Over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor,” USC Provost Andrew Guzman said in an online campus-wide letter. “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 – a “first-generation South Asian-American Muslim,” according to a statement she released via the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles – would have delivered her speech at the graduation ceremony on May 10.

“I am both shocked by this decision and profoundly disappointed that the University is succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice,” Tabassum said in the online statement. “I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university – my home for four years – has abandoned me.”

As tensions in the Middle East rage on, the deadly war in Gaza has yielded a dire humanitarian crisis while stoking angst across the world as supporters of Israel and Hamas advocate online and in the streets, many in support of a ceasefire.

The change to USC’s commencement program only affects plans for a student speech, the university’s Associate Vice President for Strategic and Crisis Communications Lauren Bartlett told CNN.

Bartlett declined to say what security concerns drove the school’s decision, saying, “In the interest of safety and security, we don’t disclose specific threats around the assessment.”

For her part, Tabassum harbors “serious doubts about whether USC’s decision to revoke my invitation to speak is made solely on the basis of safety,” she said in the online statement.

The doubts linger “because I am not aware of any specific threats against me or the university, because my request for the details underlying the university’s threat assessment has been denied, and because I am not being provided any increased safety to be able to speak at commencement,” Tabassum said.

When asked if Tabassum will still be permitted to participate in the graduation ceremony and what security measures were in place to secure her safety, Bartlett said she didn’t have that information. A Chino Hills, California native, Tabassum studied biomedical engineering with a minor in resistance to genocide and an interest in global health care equity.

Instead of canceling Tabassum’s speech, the university should take more steps to secure a safe graduation environment, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles.

“Even though USC has maintained Asna’s position as valedictorian, the cowardly decision to cancel her speech empowers voices of hate and censorship, violates USC’s obligation to protect its students and sends a terrible signal to both Muslim students at USC and all students who dare to express support for Palestinian humanity,” Ayloush said in an online statement.

Bartlett also did not have information about whether the school considered letting Tabassum share her speech before or after the graduation ceremony, she said.

“To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech,” said the provost, Guzman. “There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

“While this is disappointing,” he noted, “tradition must give way to safety.”

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