USC valedictorian speaks out after school canceled her commencement speech

USC Valedictorian Asna Tabassum. Via ABC News

(NEW YORK) — The University of Southern California’s campus has been in the spotlight after school administrators canceled a student valedictorian’s commencement speech due to safety concerns over her pro-Palestinian views.

Asna Tabassum, a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim, was scheduled to give a speech on May 10. School administrators, however, decided to cancel her speech citing safety concerns.

“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,” Andrew T. Guzman, the school’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said in a letter to students on Monday.

“This decision is not only necessary to maintain the safety of our campus and students, but is consistent with the fundamental legal obligation – including the expectations of federal regulators – that universities act to protect students and keep our campus community safe,” he added.

Tabassum has openly criticized the decision and several Muslim rights groups have also called out the school. Pro-Israel associations, however, have commended the school for its decision.

The college senior spoke about the situation with ABC News Live’s Phil Lipof on Wednesday.

ABC NEWS LIVE: I want to start with this statement that the college provost said, in part, that “The intensity of the feelings around allowing you to speak escalated to the point of creating substantial risk relating to security and disruption at the commencement, pointing out harassment and violence seen on other campuses.”

But I know you had a meeting with them. I’m wondering, did they tell you anything specific, a specific threat that was made against you, or have you had any specific threats made against you?

ASNA TABASSUM: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I will have to say no. Nothing specific was offered to me, no specific details regarding security threats or safety concerns were offered to me.

Another person created this [site], we should point out you did not create it, you posted it to a site [that] some believe contains anti-Semitic views, really some violent anti-Semitic views, including calling for the abolishment of the State of Israel.

So do you think that’s part of it? And do you believe the State of Israel should be abolished?

TABASSUM: So when it comes to abolishing the State of Israel, I do want to point out the rest of the link, and so the very next sentence talks about the peaceful coexistence of Arabs and Jews.

And I think it points to what I’ve been saying since the beginning of this issue, which is that I’m committed to human equality and to human rights. And so this link, I encourage people to look at it in its entirety rather than looking at one specific example.

For example, it’s discussing both the one-state and the two-state solution and it’s discussing the history of the region. And I think that there’s important information for people to understand on their own and come to their own conclusions about.

When it comes to abolishing the state of Israel. I will say I want to abolish apartheid.

ABC NEWS LIVE: If there is one-state and two-state in there, you could see a two-state solution. I think the abolishment of Israel is what bothered a lot of people. But you would advocate for a two-state solution, so Israel would still exist, and then there would be a Palestinian state? Is that what I’m hearing?

TABASSUM: So no, I’m not necessarily committing to a one-state or a two-state solution. I’m simply saying that this information on the website offered information from multiple perspectives, and so my endorsing of any one single perspective is unfounded.

ABC NEWS LIVE: OK. So USC has said this is not meant to infringe upon your free speech. Do you feel like it’s doing just that?

TABASSUM: So in its most technical terms, the ability to give a speech at commencement is a privilege, right?

It’s not necessarily free speech, but what I will say that I expressed my views and I express my views online, and the hatred that was leveled at me because of myself expressing these views I think ultimately was part of the reason why USC caved in.

And so whether free speech in its most technical terms is being debated here is maybe up for debate. But I will say speech is an issue and speech is being stifled.

ABC NEWS LIVE: What were you going to speak about? There’s a lot of talk about what you posted, that link, and what your beliefs may be. Were you going to talk about that at graduation, or were you going to give a different kind of speech?

TABASSUM: So, the valedictorian honor is ultimately a unifying honor, right? It’s emblematic of USC’s unifying values. And I think I take that to heart.

I wanted my speech to be in the genre of a valedictory speech, and so that being said, I wanted to impart a message of hope. I also wanted to impart a message of responsibility.

We are given a wonderful set of higher education. We have been given the knowledge of learning how to learn. And so I wanted to encourage my peers to learn about the world and come to their own conclusions and then act to change the world in the ways that they see fit.

And so ultimately, taking in my role as valedictorian, I wanted to be a unifying voice for all students, and that was preemptively taken away from me.

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