USC Cancels Outside Speakers and Honorees Amid Controversy

USC cancels commencement speakers after backlash over silencing pro-Palestinian valedictorian's speech, raising concerns about free speech and campus security.

Rafia Tasleem
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USC Cancels Outside Speakers and Honorees at 2023 Commencement Amid Controversy

USC Cancels Outside Speakers and Honorees Amid Controversy

The University of Southern California (USC) has announced that there will be no outside speakers or honorees at its main commencement ceremony. This decision comes after the university faced backlash for canceling the speech of its pro-Palestinian valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student and first-generation South Asian American Muslim.

USC cited safety precautions as the reason for canceling Tabassum's speech, stating that it was not about free speech but about maintaining campus security. The university claimed that the decision was made due to a "growing furor" related to the war in Gaza that had "escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption."

Tabassum expressed disappointment with the university's decision, calling it a "campaign of hate" meant to silence her voice. The Council on American-Islamic Relations' Los Angeles office criticized USC's decision as a "cowardly decision" and a "thinly-veiled manifestation of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism."

In the wake of the controversy, USC has now canceled the appearances of all outside speakers and honorees at the commencement ceremony, including director Jon M. Chu and tennis legend Billie Jean King. The university stated that it wanted to keep the focus on the graduates and is redesigning the ceremony.

The decision has been met with criticism from students, faculty, and civil rights groups, who have called for an apology and a fuller explanation from USC President Carol Folt. Over 130 faculty members signed a letter demanding that Tabassum be allowed to speak. Tabassum, who still plans to attend graduation, has accused the university of betraying her and caving in to a "campaign of hatred."

Why this matters: The incident at USC reflects the increasingly hostile treatment of pro-Palestinian students on US university campuses amid tensions surrounding Israel's ongoing war in Gaza. It raises concerns about the limitations on free speech for pro-Palestinian voices and the challenges faced by colleges in preserving open debate while maintaining campus security.

USC Provost Andrew Guzman stated that the decision to cancel Tabassum's speech was aimed at protecting campus security, as the May 10 commencement exercises were expected to draw 65,000 people to the USC campus. The university will still host individual college ceremonies, including a grand academic procession, formal conferring of degrees, and hooding ceremonies for Ph.D. graduates. USC has said it will provide additional updates on commencement next week.

Key Takeaways

  • USC canceled valedictorian Asna Tabassum's pro-Palestinian speech citing security risks.
  • USC now canceled all outside speakers/honorees at 2023 main commencement ceremony.
  • Tabassum and civil rights groups accused USC of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism.
  • Over 130 faculty demanded Tabassum be allowed to speak, but USC redesigned ceremony.
  • Incident reflects hostile treatment of pro-Palestinian students on US campuses.