The choice between safety and free speech is a false one

If USC was able to protect Ben Shapiro in 2018, they can protect Asna Tabassum — not doing so is a choice.

(Graphic: Vivienne Tran / Daily Trojan. Source photographs: Wikimedia Commons, Unsplash)

USC’s decision to bar its own valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, from speaking at its 2024 commencement ceremony reminds us of a similarly contentious moment that took place when we were undergraduates. 

In 2018, USC’s administration declared: “There is something sacred on our campus, and that is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, especially in regard to free speech.” 

Daily headlines, sent straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up with the latest at and around USC.

This sacred commitment was put to the test when a student group invited conservative activist Ben Shapiro to speak at a sold-out Bovard Auditorium while hundreds of students protested outside. As politically engaged and vocal students, we were there. 

We and other protesters criticized Shapiro’s views as bigoted and offensive. Some students even wanted to bar Shapiro from campus altogether, on the grounds that his presence and views would make campus unsafe. 

USC rightly remained firm in its commitment to free speech, demonstrating that there need not be a compromise between public safety and one’s rights. USC viewed creating a safe environment for the free expression of ideas as fundamental to its duties as a university. 

As then-Department of Public Safety Chief John Thomas explained in a written statement, “Our role is to make sure that all parties on campus may safely exercise their first amendment rights in accordance with university policy.”

To live up to this ideal, USC paid for and deployed additional uniformed police officers from both DPS and the Los Angeles Police Department, alongside other security measures. 

Afterwards, then-Provost Michael Quick celebrated our school’s ability to protect its students’ First Amendment rights and physical safety, writing, “The USC community proved that even in challenging times, we can engage in passionate, thoughtful debate while maintaining respect for each other.”

Six years later, in the face of similar calls to silence a campus speaker, USC has decided that “tradition must give way to safety.” The University administration canceled Tabassum’s valedictorian speech on the grounds that it was “necessary to maintain the safety of our campus and students.” USC disclosed neither the magnitude nor the specificity of the threats to the public or Tabassum.

This decision and its rationale amount to an absurdity. 

While Shapiro had publicly expressed hateful views of Palestinians and other groups, Tabassum has merely shared links that express ideas that are typical within academic discourse on Arab-Israeli relations. 

Shapiro was allowed to speak and provided with extra security by the University. Tabassum has been banned from speaking as valedictorian at her own commencement ceremony. Both faced outside threats. Why was Shapiro given extra security while Tabassum will be silenced?

It is the University’s job to protect and empower her ability to speak rather than cowering in the face of alleged threats made by outsiders. As students, one of whom is Jewish, we always thought the University would do what was necessary to protect our right to share our ideas in the face of outside threats, as they would for all students.

Yesterday, however, the administration showed those protections do not extend to at least some of their Muslim students — not even those who achieve the University’s highest honor. This decision places Tabassum in the company of far too many Muslim and Arab students across the nation who have been subject to sanctions for voicing their opposition to Israel’s destructive war in Gaza.

While private universities are not required to uphold constitutional protections for free speech, California private schools are subject to the Leonard Law, which prohibits them from disciplining students solely on the basis of protected free speech. That said, USC has the legal authority to cancel Tabassum’s speech, because the action is not a disciplinary sanction. In doing so, however, USC has shown the hollowness of its principles and cowardice of its administration. 

It’s not too late to change course. We urge the University to do the right thing and protect Tabassum from outside threats and enable her to address her fellow graduates at the commencement ceremony next month.

Jacob Schwessinger

B.A. ’20

Gould School of Law

Class of 2025


Jacob Lind 

B.A. ’20 & M.A. ’21

Gould School of Law

Class of 2026

© University of Southern California/Daily Trojan. All rights reserved.