Schools keep censoring valedictorians. It often backfires — here's why they do it anyway.

After days of uproar and protests over the University of Southern California’s decision to cancel its valedictorian’s speech, the school announced Friday it wouldn’t be hearing from its planned outside speakers either.

The Los Angeles school said Asna Tabassum would not deliver her speech, after critics complained about her social media, which includes an Instagram bio that links to a pro-Palestine website. In response, students, faculty and pro-Palestinian activists rallied to protest the school's decision.

It's a familiar pattern that's happened in various forms year-after-year in the U.S.: Schools keep attempting to silence their brightest students, who often want to speak on polarizing or sensitive topics at graduation ceremonies. It's happened in Florida, California, New Jersey and other states.

Students generally don't have a free speech right to speak at a graduation and administrators can have legitimate concerns about safety, according to Sanford Ungar, the director of Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project. He is also a former president of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

“Nobody wants a riot to break out at commencement," Ungar said.

Still, Ungar said it's important for schools to support students in expressing their ideas.

There's quite a catch when schools choose to influence students' speeches though: Shutting down a valedictorian's plans to speak out on politics or criticise school officials often means a local graduation ceremony becomes the center of a national controversy.

“The outrage is usually the result of the response, not necessarily the thing that required (schools) to respond in the first place,” said Lisa Aaronson, who handles crisis public relations issues for colleges and universities.

What's happening at USC?

It all started with one student, Asna Tabassum, who was selected as valedictorian for the class of 2024. Tabassum’s graduation speech was unceremoniously canceled by the school, which cited safety concerns, after the contents of her social media page were heavily scrutinized, drawing complaints by community members and onlookers alike.

Tabassum’s Instagram bio linked to a pro-Palestinian website, and USC Provost Andrew Guzman said the “intensity of feelings” around the ongoing Middle East conflict has “escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.”

Israel’s war against Hamas is just over six months old, but school administrators' attempts to intervene in graduation speeches – especially in high school – make local and national news virtually every year, with no signs of stopping, experts say. The result is a sticky debate over freedom of speech and the public relations fiasco that follows.

“One has to understand that at colleges and universities, the big issues of the day are supposed to be talked about, and the big problems of the world are supposed to be referenced,” Ungar said.

“But I think it is not unreasonable to hope that that will occur in a civil manner and to be worried about the consequences of a provocative, polarizing talk.”

Students face off against administration year after year over speeches

The ongoing controversy at USC is just the latest example of schools having conflict with high-achieving students at graduation. In recent years:

  • One Florida high school valedictorian gave a passionate speech about the difficulties of “having curly hair” – a euphemism for being gay – after he said his principal warned him his microphone would be cut off if he spoke about his activism in 2022.

  • A 2018 valedictorian in California had her microphone cut off just as she deviated from the expected script and was about to criticize school administrators for their handling of sexual misconduct allegations.

  • At a 2021 New Jersey high school graduation, a teen speaking about his experience with mental health and being queer-identifying was interrupted by his principal, who took his microphone. Bryce Dershem told USA TODAY at the time that the principal removed his speech from the podium and told him to only read an approved version.

  • One teen who referred to the “authoritative attitude” of his Pennsylvania high school’s administration in 2017 had his mic cut, and was ushered off stage when he tried to keep speaking.

  • According to the Georgetown Free Speech Project tracker, a 2017 commencement at Sonoma State University included expletives and criticisms of former President Donald Trump, for which the university president later publicly apologized.

  • A Sheboygan, Wisconsin, valedictorian said his graduation speech was called off altogether in 2019 after his high school told him to nix portions of his speech about being gay and criticizing biblical views on homosexuality.

Why do schools cut mics, cancel speeches?

Higher ups may be worried about speech content that could be “unpopular” with parents or school officials, Ungar said.

Students should have the right to speak about important timely topics in their speeches, Ungar said, but at the same time, there should be some expectation of civility and reasonableness. He opposes when school administrators use their position “to suppress the attitudes, or the words, or the thoughts" of the students being honored.

“No one has a right to speak at any graduation, but it’s going to be a sad thing if it turns out that the only subject that’s acceptable to talk about at a graduation is the lovely weather,” Ungar said.

But “it’s very hard to please everybody,” he said.

Speech police? Supreme Court asked to enter fray on confronting bias on campus.

But the latest case at USC is a bit unusual for several reasons, Ungar said. It involves a university rather than a high school — higher education commencements are often a more appropriate venue for speeches that wrestle with controversial or political ideas. And Tabassum, who is Muslim, had her speech canceled before it was even written.

Tabassum told CNN she hadn’t started working on her speech yet, but would likely have used her platform to “implore my peers to… consider the ways in which their education can allow them and offer them the responsibility to look at matters of the world… and make their own decisions.”

Censorship can backfire, public relations expert says

In many cases, the decisions about speeches that might have flown under the radar can draw much more attention to their content than if schools had allowed the students to speak, said Aaronson, who is the senior director for higher education consulting at Huron/ GG+A Global Philanthropy.

In many cases, the censored students are given platforms in local or national news. Some videos of their speeches go viral on social media.

While universities have traditionally been viewed by the general public as trustworthy institutions, Aaronson said recent years have drawn intense levels of inspection and outrage against them, which they tend to be unprepared for. She said issues like the one USC is facing will continue to happen as universities are at the center of some of America’s largest social issues.

The key for schools is to respond with transparency and open dialogue with all stakeholders in the community. That might mean beefing up security at a ceremony if there are safety concerns, and being open about what specific threats have been made, if any.

“Ignoring it or thinking it’ll blow over is definitely not the way to deal with it,” she said.

Contributing: Anthony Robledo, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USC graduation joins long list of US graduation controversies