April 22, 2024

USC Cancels Speech

The University of Southern California canceled a commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians, citing security concerns… Andrew T. Guzman, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs for the private university in Los Angeles, said in a statement [last] Monday that debate over the selection of valedictorian Asna Tabassum to give the May 10 commencement speech took on an ‘alarming tenor.’ Her speaking would have presented ‘substantial’ security risks for the event, which draws 65,000 people to campus, he said…

“Tabassum, who is graduating with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in resistance to genocide, said she was blindsided by the decision, in a statement provided [last] Tuesday by the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. University officials told her [last] Monday that there were resources to take appropriate safety measures but they were concerned about their image, she said.” AP News

All sides are skeptical of USC citing security concerns to cancel the speech:

“USC is not famous for its commitment to free expression—it once suspended a professor for simply saying a Chinese word that sounded like a racial slur. And the school had a decision to make. Administrators could have said they had made a mistake in picking Tabassum because her views were at odds with USC’s values and stripped her of the role. Or they could have stuck by Tabassum and ridden out an uncomfortable commencement day in the name of free speech…

Instead, they opted for a weaselly fudge, keeping Tabassum as valedictorian but preventing her from speaking… USC had no constitutional obligation to select Tabassum as valedictorian. It does have a duty to be straight with students and faculty about its decision-making.”
Oliver Wiseman, Free Press

USC did not demonstrate that it was necessary to cancel Tabassum’s speech. They did not show, or even allege, that Tabassum would use the moment to incite any kind of disruption. There is no evidence that the university considered what a security arrangement might look like to protect Tabassum and all participants at graduation. There is no evidence that it considered or offered alternatives to canceling her speech altogether…

“USC gave opponents of Tabassum’s views the ‘heckler’s veto.’ The lesson seems to be: If you don’t like a speaker, complain and threaten disruption to get your way. The risks to campus free speech are obvious. Once a school starts down this path, there is no end to political tests in which university administrators bless certain views—those that do not stir up intense feelings—and reject others. That is the path of campus authoritarianism, something American students have been fighting against since at least 1964.”
David Kaye, Slate

“While it's easy to view this censorship as reflective of USC taking a side in the Israel-Hamas war, the reality is much more mundane. USC, like many colleges, is primarily concerned with avoiding controversy at all costs—not with taking a side in a complex political debate. For example, just last year, the school banned a Jewish professor from campus after he was filmed calling Hamas ‘murderers’ and calling protesting students ‘ignorant’—though the sanctions against him were eventually reversed under pressure…

“The cancellation of Tabassum's speech presents a clear example of just how risk-averse university administrations tend to be. When controversy arises—either from the left or right—the prevailing response is censorship, rather than a principled stand for free expression.”
Emma Camp, Reason

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

“U.S. presidents are invited to give commencement addresses at universities every year, necessitating far more security than any other speaker. Surely the threats posed to Tabassum can’t be graver than those facing a president of the United States… Graduation speakers have seized the pulpit to speak truth to power during some of the most tumultuous times in our country…

“At Vassar College’s 1970 commencement ceremony, it was probably uncomfortable for many in the audience, particularly the men, when Gloria Steinem declared that ‘much of the trouble this country is in has to do with the Masculine Mystique: the idea that manhood somehow depends on the subjugation of other people.’…

“And many in the audience of UC Berkeley’s 1966 law school commencement were likely uncomfortable when valedictorian Michael Tigar devoted his speech to Vietnam, proclaiming: ‘War is the enemy of political freedom.’… We will not move past the crisis of the moment by silencing those with whom we disagree. The university is exactly the sort of place where such views must be heard.”

David N. Myers, Los Angeles Times

“While the move was made in the name of safety, the truth is that it could lead to greater danger: the chilling of free speech and further alienation of young people from the political process

“A toxic sludge of religion and nationalism has turned so many of us inward, completely unable to tolerate viewpoints even a few degrees separated from ours. But seeking to silence them — especially young people's — will only breed more resentment and alienation. If we don’t allow others to speak, how can we possibly expect them to listen when it’s our turn?”

Marisa Kabas, MSNBC

From the Right

“It is absolutely true that leftists have a long track record of causing mayhem when speakers on campus say things they don’t like, it is also true that more recently anti Israel protesters have done the same. But what we do not have is any record of pro-Israel entities or individuals acting in such violent or destructive manners. Put simply, the threat USC is describing does not exist…

“No Muslim students have had to hide in a library as protestors accost them as happened to Jewish students at Cooper Union, no roving bands of pro Israel activists are shutting down bridges, burning flags or chanting ‘death to America,’ or death to anything. If the speaker were pro-Israel there might be a legitimate threat, but there is no threat here, which is exactly why USC won’t specifically define it…

“Whether calling for the destruction of Israel is an antisemitic statement that should bar a person from an honor such as valedictorian is a reasonable argument, in fact, just the kind of debate that colleges and universities are meant to foster. Instead, USC has simply decided to punt on the question, leaving the completely false impression that Tabassum has been canceled by threats from conservatives or Zionists.”

David Marcus, Fox News

“When did schools start offering [resistance to genocide] as a minor course of study?… Perhaps Mr. Guzman should also consider the possibility that when your school offers a minor in ‘resistance to genocide,’ you're almost certainly going to attract some people like this young woman. As much as I reject everything that Asna Tabassum stands for, I find myself agreeing with her that it does seem odd that the school would offer that study option and then refuse to let her speak about the subject matter she minored in.”

Jazz Shaw, Hot Air

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