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USC cancels filmmaker's keynote amid controversy over canceled valedictorian speech

Students carrying signs on April 18, 2024 on the campus of USC protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians.
Damian Dovarganes
Students carrying signs on April 18, 2024 on the campus of USC protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians.

LOS ANGELES — The University of Southern California further shook up its commencement plans Friday, announcing the cancellation of a keynote speech by filmmaker Jon M. Chu just days after making the controversial choice to disallow the student valedictorian from speaking.

The private university in Los Angeles on Monday said it was canceling valedictorian Asna Tabassum's speech at the May 10 ceremony because of safety concerns. Tabassum, who is Muslim, has expressed support for Palestinians in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, and university officials said the response to her selection as valedictorian had "taken on an alarming tenor." They did not cite any specific threats.

The university's decision was met with praise from pro-Israel organizations but condemnation from free speech groups and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Students and faculty marched across campus Thursday in silent protest of the university's decision.

Now, university officials say they are "redesigning" the entire commencement program.

"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 an unsigned statement posted Friday. "We've been talking to this exceptional group and hope to confer these honorary degrees at a future commencement or other academic ceremonies."

Chu was slated to deliver the keynote address at the May 10 ceremony. He is a 2003 graduate of the university who has since directed films like "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Wicked," an adaptation for the Broadway musical set for release last this year.

More than 65,000 people are expected to gather on campus for commencement, including 19,000 graduates.

"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," Tabassum said in a statement earlier this week.

The Israel-Hamas war has presented a challenge for colleges under pressure to preserve free speech and open debate, and campuses are expected to be further tested as commencement speeches get underway in the coming weeks.

At Columbia University on Thursday, New York police removed a pro-Palestinian protest encampment and arrested more than 100 demonstrators. Most of them were charged with trespassing at the Ivy League-institution.

Several students involved in the protest said they also were suspended from Columbia and nearby Barnard College. The school said it was still identifying students involved in the protest and added more suspensions would be forthcoming.

"Students have a right to free speech but do not have a right to violate university policies and disrupt learning on campus," said New York Mayor Eric Adams, who said the city was asked by university officials to remove the encampment.

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