USC cancels speech by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M Chu amid uproar over barring of pro-Palestinian valedictorian

The University of Southern California has scrapped commencement speeches by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M Chu and other honorees amid an uproar over the cancellation of a graduation speech by pro-Palestinian valedictorian Asna Tabassum.

On Friday (19 April), USC announced the decision in a letter posted to the university’s website.

That update came as a follow-up to an announcement earlier in the week calling off Ms Tabassum’s speech over a growing furore relating to the war in Gaza that had drawn in “many voices outside of USC” and had “escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption”.

“We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses,” the statement continued.

“As always, and particularly when tensions are running so high across the world, we must prioritize the safety of our community.”

Friday’s letter states that “given the highly publicized circumstances surrounding our main-stage commencement program” it was decided to “release our outside speakers and honorees from attending this year’s ceremony”.

Jon M Chu, director of movies including 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians, had been due to give a commencement speech (AFP via Getty Images)

It continued: “We’ve been talking to this exceptional group and hope to confer these honorary degrees at a future commencement or other academic ceremonies.”

Chu, a USC alumnus, was scheduled to deliver the school’s commencement speech at the main ceremony on 10 May in front of approximately 65,000 attendees.

In addition to Crazy Rich Asians, Chu has directed and produced a wide range of movies, notably In the Heights and the highly anticipated movie adaptation of the musical Wicked.

Also scheduled to attend and receive honorary degrees were tennis legend Billie Jean King, National Endowment for the Arts Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, and National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt.

King will still give the keynote speech at a separate ceremony for the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Ms Tabassum, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student from Chino Hills, California, was set to give a speech at the ceremony on 10 May.

Valedictorian is the academic title conferred upon the highest-ranked student among those graduating from an educational institution, typically based on the highest grade point average.

As well as her stellar academic record, Ms Tabassum was noted for having engaged in multiple community outreach and non-profit organisations during her time at USC, including helping to send medical supplies to Turkey, Syria and Ukraine.

In her social media bio, she also includes a link to a pro-Palestinian website. She describes herself as a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim.

USC stressed in its decision to call off Ms Tabassum’s speech: “To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”

USC’s decision has been met with outrage from advocacy groups, including CAIR Greater Los Angeles, which said it “empowers voices of hate” and violated the university’s obligation to protect its students

In a statement released via the Council on American–Islamic Relations, Ms Tabassum said she felt “profoundly disappointed” and “abandoned” by USC – “my home of four years”.

“I am honored to have been selected as USC Class of 2024 Valedictorian. Although this should have been a time of celebration for my family, friends, professors, and classmates, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices have subjected me to a campaign of racist hatred because of my uncompromising belief in human rights for all,” she said.

Pro-Palestinian students pose for photos in front of the Tommy Trojan statue on the campus of the University of Southern California (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

“This campaign to prevent me from addressing my peers at commencement has evidently accomplished its goal… I am both shocked by this decision and profoundly disappointed that the University is succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.

“I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university—my home for four years—has abandoned me.”

USC has said it will provide additional updates on commencement next week.

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