Asna Tabassum has a GPA of at least 3.98, with a major in the challenging field of biomedical engineering, and a record sterling enough to be picked as USC’s valedictorian from about 100 qualified candidates. For that accomplishment, this is her “reward”: having the traditional valedictory speech canceled at the May 10 commencement over concerns about maintaining “security and safety.”

Tabassum, who is Muslim, has voiced pro-Palestinian sentiments and has liked and linked to sites on social media that some see as antisemitic. USC officials say the university made the decision not because of Tabassum’s beliefs but because her selection led to threats if she speaks. But the university has not disclosed specifics to Tabassum or the public. Threats to physically attack? To walk out? To heckle the speech? To boycott the commencement ceremony? Was there a credible threat of violence?

Neither USC nor the public knows what Tabassum was planning to say in her speech, which means the cancellation is based on complaints about her being on the stage. There have even been criticisms of her minor in college — resistance to genocide. It’s a ridiculous complaint as the program, which predates the Oct. 7 attacks, includes courses about the Holocaust and antisemitism, and genocide against Armenians and Native Americans.

But even if a fiery speech on the Middle East were her intent — Tabassum told The Times that she was planning to talk about hope and using education to make a difference in the world — silencing her would still be a sad statement about USC’s priorities. The message this sends to graduating seniors is that when a threat to free speech arrives, it’s time to cave.

We do have sympathy for the difficult choices USC and other colleges have to make in these fraught times in which campuses are roiled by protests and anger over the war in Gaza. UC Berkeley was reminded of that recently when pro-Palestinian protesters broke down a door and shattered a window at an event with a pro-Israel speaker.

University officials are continually confronted with dicey decisions about maintaining freedom of speech, student safety and an environment that supports the diversity of people and ideas on campus, while under pressure from donors who may threaten to withdraw their largesse.

But in this case, USC made the wrong decision. It shouldn’t allow itself to be intimidated into silencing a speaker. Would it do that if the threats were made against a famous or wealthy donor? A well-known politician?

Consider this: What if people start threatening to disrupt commencement because Tabassum isn’t speaking? That’s not outside the realm of possibility. Would USC officials vacillate depending on who’s making the threats?

If people refuse to attend the commencement ceremony because Tabassum is speaking, that’s their problem. If the audience doesn’t know how to behave with basic courtesy, that is not Tabassum’s responsibility. It is USC’s job to create a safe environment for speakers, graduates and guests. (Metal detectors already are required at USC and most commencement ceremonies.)

Tabassum has earned the right and honor to give an address during commencement, the same as any previous or future valedictorian. And despite the threats, she still wants to speak. USC should let her voice be heard.


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