USC scraps outside speakers at commencement after canceling Muslim student's speech

FILE PHOTO: California university cancels Muslim valedictorian's speech, citing safety concerns

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) - The University of Southern California announced there will be no outside speakers and honorees at this year's main commencement ceremony after canceling its valedictorian speech from a Muslim student who said she was silenced by anti-Palestinian hatred.

"Given the highly publicized circumstances surrounding our main-stage commencement program, university leadership has decided it is best to release our outside speakers and honorees from attending this year's ceremony," the university said in a statement on Friday.

USC Provost Andrew Guzman said on Monday the speech of the Muslim valedictorian, biomedical engineering major Asna Tabassum, was canceled. Guzman said the decision to scrub the traditional address at next month's graduation was aimed at protecting campus security.

In an earlier statement, Tabassum said USC was "caving to fear and rewarding hatred," which she alleged was directed by "anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices."

The Israel-Gaza war has led to tensions on U.S. college campuses. Over 100 pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested on Thursday at Columbia University after its president authorized New York police to clear an encampment set up by students demonstrating against Israel's actions in Gaza. Those protests continued for a third successive day on Friday.

Rights advocates also note a rise in hate and bias against Muslims, Arab and Jews amid the war.

The Council on American Islamic Relations advocacy group and anti-war group Jewish Voice for Peace supported Tabassum. On Thursday, about 500 demonstrators marched at the USC campus in her support.

Trojans for Israel, a USC-based group, and We Are Tov (Hebrew for "good"), a group advocating support for Israel and Jews in collegiate life, called for Tabassum's removal, saying she has previously espoused antisemitic views.

The May 10 commencement exercises, honoring this year's class of 19,000-plus graduates, were expected to draw 65,000 people to the downtown Los Angeles campus of one of California's most prestigious universities.

Before Friday's announcement, the scheduled commencement speaker was expected to be film director Jon M. Chu and honorary degree recipients included tennis legend Billie Jean King, according to an ABC News affiliate.

Israel's assault on Gaza has killed over 34,000 Palestinians, according to the local health ministry, displaced nearly all of Gaza's population and led to genocide allegations that Israel denies. It followed the Oct. 7 cross-border attack by Palestinian Hamas militants that killed 1,200, according to Israeli tallies.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington and Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)