SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: April 15, 2024

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):University of Southern California

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 15, 2024, the University of Southern California (USC) announced that it would cancel the planned commencement address of its valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, because of security concerns after groups on and off campus began to harass her because of her pro-Palestinian social media content.

On April 5, USC’s president, Carol Folt, named Tabassum valedictorian. USC’s provost, Andrew Guzman, had selected Tabassum for the honor from a list of close to 100 students. After her selection, a variety of student groups and off-campus groups, including We Are Tov, Trojans for Israel and the Lawfare Project, began to call for USC to rescind Tabassum’s designation as valedictorian, arguing that her social media commentary was “anti-semitic.” Tabassum’s Instagram account includes posts that call Zionism a “racist settler-colonial ideology” and advocate for a one-state solution.

In an update on commencement shared with the USC community on April 15, Provost Guzman stated that, while Tabassum would remain valedictorian, she would not give a speech during commencement because of safety concerns. Guzman’s letter did not give any specifics about the nature or extent of any threat to the USC community. In addition, Guzman stated that he would work with faculty over the summer to rethink its annual selection of a valedictorian.

On April 19, USC announced that it had released all honorees invited to speak at the commencement ceremony from their obligation to attend the graduation in order to “keep the focus on our graduates.”

Scholars at Risk is concerned about a higher education institution canceling a valedictorian’s address due to stated security concerns because of public pressure from members of the academic community and members of the public. Where there are legitimate security concerns, the university is obligated to take reasonable available measures to ensure security. In addition, higher education officials should protect academic freedom and take all available steps to ensure the exercise of academic freedom, including during on-campus, academic events. The cancellation of events due to public pressure undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.

UPDATE (4/29/24): On April 25, USC announced that it was cancelling its main commencement ceremony.

Sources:
https://www.npr.org/2024/04/16/1244990599/usc-valedictorian-speech-canceled
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/quick-takes/2024/04/16/usc-cancels-muslim-valedictorians-planned-graduation-speech
https://www.chronicle.com/article/u-of-southern-california-cancels-valedictorians-speech-over-safety-but-critics-call-it-censorship
https://mesana.org/advocacy/committee-on-academic-freedom/2024/04/18/tter-to-the-university-of-southern-california-expressing-outrage-over-its-decision-to-cancel-asna-tabassums-valedictory-address-at-commencement
https://ca.cair.com/losangeles/news/cair-la-demands-usc-reverse-cowardly-decision-to-cancel-muslim-valedictorians-speech-in-response-to-anti-palestinian-hate/
https://www.thefire.org/news/usc-canceling-valedictorians-commencement-speech-looks-calculated-censorship
https://www.provost.usc.edu/important-update-on-2024-commencement/
https://commencement.usc.edu/important-updates/
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/quick-takes/2024/04/26/usc-cancels-main-graduation-ceremony