Not a good look, USC: Cancel culture comes for colleges as graduation season begins

Things are not well on America’s college campuses. The disgusting antisemitism that seems only to be building – and campus administrators’ lackluster response – has led to some truly frightening displays.

Violence and rule-breaking behavior must not be tolerated. Period.

Yet, higher education leaders cannot make an unsettling time an excuse to censor perfectly fine speech just because they fear a difficult situation.

That’s what happened at the University of Southern California when the Los Angeles school decided last week to cancel valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s commencement speech in May – the first time USC has prevented its top graduate from speaking at the ceremony.

College officials claimed they were concerned about the “alarming tenor” that had taken place on social media after Tabassum was named valedictorian. The ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza has led to increased tensions in the United States following Hamas’ brutal attack against Israel on Oct. 7.

Detractors were displeased about Tabassum’s support of Palestinians and accused her of “anti-semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric.”

"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," Provost Andrew Guzman said in a statement. "This decision is not only necessary to maintain the safety of our campus and students, but is consistent with the fundamental legal obligation."

Following controversy over the decision to prevent Tabassum from speaking, USC has since doubled down by canceling appearances of other speakers and honorees.

How is any of this fair to valedictorian Asna Tabassum?

Not only is USC’s decision an affront to free speech, it’s also fundamentally unfair to Tabassum, who undoubtedly worked hard in her years at the university to earn this achievement.

She shouldn’t have this experience taken from her.

In a statement, Tabassum has said that she is surprised USC “abandoned” her.

Hey, Berkeley: Violence isn't free speech. Colleges still struggle with antisemitic protests.

Now, Tabassum may well have repugnant personal views and her speech may stoke division on campus. Even so, her academic accomplishments should not be undermined because of fears of possible violence and a speech she likely hadn’t even written yet.

Rather, the university should have committed to keeping her and others attending graduation safe. And if it knew of a tangible security threat, it should be upfront about that.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression faults USC for how it handled this situation. While USC is a private university, it commits to First Amendment-like free speech. And FIRE points to how California law requires private, secular colleges and universities to give students the same speech rights they’d have at the state’s public institutions.

“Implicit in the idea of a campus committed to robust expressive rights is that administrators won’t censor their students just because they have controversial views,” FIRE said in a statement.

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Adrian College offers a better way to handle controversy

Meanwhile, administrators at private Adrian College in Michigan are handling their own “controversy” in much better fashion.

They’re pretty much ignoring it.

Last month, Adrian College announced that Riley Gaines would be its commencement speaker on May 5.

Riley Gaines
Riley Gaines

Gaines, who is often described in the media as an “anti-trans rights activist,” is a lot more than that. She is an accomplished former NCAA competitive swimmer who became well-known after she tied transgender swimmer Lia Thomas in the 200-yard NCAA freestyle championship race in 2022.

Following that experience, Gaines has become an outspoken defender of fairness in women’s sports and speaks frequently on the issue at universities around the country.

Athletes sue NCAA: These women say transgender rules discriminate against them. So they're suing the NCAA.

Gaines is used to attracting pushback – and even violence – on campuses, so it’s probably no surprise to her that there are factions of the Adrian community who aren’t happy that she will speak at the school. A student LGBTQ+ group started an online petition urging the college to “disinvite” Gaines. It now has more than 1,600 signatures.

But the college isn’t backing down.

“Adrian College has never shied away from presenting and debating substantive disagreements on campus,” Adrian President Jeffrey Docking said in a news release. "In fact, this is precisely the purpose of universities – to engage in civil discourse of controversial issues. We welcome Riley Gaines to our beautiful campus, and we feel confident our students will be inspired by her commencement address.”

I hope Docking and fellow administrators stay firm in their commitment. And even though it may be embarrassing for USC to backtrack, it should reinstate valedictorian Tabassum as a speaker at commencement.

More than ever, college students need examples of what free expression really looks like.

Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at or on X, formerly Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USC cancels graduation speaker. What happened to free speech?