USC valedictorian whose speech was canceled in Israel row shares redacted version

USC valedictorian whose speech was canceled in Israel row shares redacted version

Campus outlets at the University of Southern California (USC) published a speech on Friday from graduating student Asna Tabassum, a Muslim-American valedictorian whose remarks were canceled last month over security concerns, sparking a free speech debate.

The biomedical engineering student was set to offer the traditional valedictorian’s speech today during the university’s commencement, but the school canceled her remarks amid a hail of criticisms surrounding her positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The remarks, published today in the Daily Trojan, were virtually all redacted.

“This speech is published as was written and shared by Tabassum. Annenberg Media and the Daily Trojan did not write, edit or change the speech or its presentation,” the university’s media centre said online.

“President Folt, Provost Guzman, faculty, staff, families and fellow Class of 2024,” Ms Tabassum’s speech began. “It is my honor to stand before you today as your Valedictorian. I am filled with gratitude to have the privilege of”, followed by 10 paragraphs of redactions.

The speech ended with “Congratulations, Class of 2024. Thank you.”

In April, USC announced it was canceling Ms Tabassum’s speech, citing unspecified security concerns.

“After careful consideration, we have decided that our student valedictorian will not deliver a speech at commencement,” university administrators wrote in a statement at the time. “While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety.”

“To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech,” it added.

Ms Tabassum, who beat out numerous other high-achieving applicants to be top of her class, came to public attention after she was selected as valedictorian.

Jewish groups on campus and beyond pointed to her past activity on social media and declared it was antisemitic. USC’s Chabad chapter, for example, accused the student of supporting material that was “antisemitic and hate speech.”

Trojans for Israel, meanwhile, accused Ms Tabassum, who completed an inter-disciplinary minor studying issues around genocide, of calling for the “complete abolishment” of Israel.

At issue was a link on Ms Tabassum’s private Instagram, from before the 7 October conflict began, linking to an online repository of information about the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The page refers to Israel as a “Jewish ethnostate” and calls Zionism a “racist settler-colonial ideology that advocates for a Jewish ethnostate built on Palestinian land.”

Elsewhere on the page, which Ms Tabassum did not author, the repository expresses a hope that “both Arabs and Jews can live together without an ideology that specifically advocates for the ethnic cleansing of one of them”.

Ms Tabassum has said she stands by her remarks, arguing she was advocating for the kind of social justice values she learned in part at USC.

“Absolutely not. I stand by exactly what I stand by,” she told KABC-TV. “It is the very values and the very lessons USC taught me that I stand by.”

She has been critical of USC’s decision to cancel her speech.

“I am a student of history who chose to minor in resistance to genocide, anchored by the Shoah Foundation, and have learned that ordinary people are capable of unspeakable acts of violence when they are taught hate fueled by fear,” she previously wrote in a statement. “And due to widespread fear, I was hoping to use my commencement speech to inspire my classmates with a message of hope. By canceling my speech, USC is only caving to fear and rewarding hatred.”

Critics of USC’s decision argued the canceled speech is part of a larger wave of actions silencing pro-Palestinian perspectives, including the banning of pro-Palestinian groups on multiple US college campuses in recent months, and represents a double standard on free speech about Israel.

“Let’s be very clear: if Tabassum were pro-Israel and her Instagram linked to any of the very many genocidal things that the Israeli government had said about Palestinians, there is little chance her speech would have been cancelled,” Arwa Mahdawi argued last month in The Guardian.

Many students appeared to be on the silenced speaker’s side.

During Friday’s commencement ceremony, she received a standing ovation.