The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

"USC Canceling Valedictorian's Commencement Speech Looks Like Calculated Censorship"


The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (Alex Morey) discusses the incident; I also commented on it yesterday morning on AirTalk (with Larry Mantle) on an L.A. radio station yesterday; for more about the material that the valedictorian had apparently posted online, see this Daily Mail (James Gordon) story. An excerpt from the FIRE piece:

The University of Southern California on Monday canceled a planned commencement speech by class valedictorian Asna Tabassum following criticism of Tabassum's online commentary about Israel.

In an email to the campus community, USC Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Andrew T. Guzman said canceling the speech was "necessary to maintain the safety of our campus and students" due to "substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement."

But with no sense that USC actually received any threats or took any steps to secure the event short of canceling it, this instead looks like a calculated move to quiet the critics — without creating new ones by overtly censoring the student or yanking her valedictorian status.

Of course, no student has the right to be valedictorian. At USC, it's an academic honor USC can give out as the institution sees fit. But once USC has selected a student for this honor, canceling her speech based on criticism of her viewpoint definitely implicates the campus speech climate in important ways.

USC is a private university that makes First Amendment-like free speech promises. It's also bound by California's Leonard Law, which requires private, secular colleges and universities to give their students the same expressive rights enjoyed by students at the state's public colleges.

Implicit in the idea of a campus committed to robust expressive rights is that administrators won't censor their students just because they have controversial views.

Here, USC should have been palms up about any genuine security threats, with administrators first doing everything in their power to provide adequate security for the event so it could proceed. Canceling it should be a last resort. And they should avoid at all costs ultimately doing what they've done here: capitulating to a heckler's veto….

I should note that the Leonard Law likely doesn't extend to this situation, because it only generally forbids private universities from "subjecting a student to disciplinary sanctions" based on constitutionally protected speech. I doubt that disinviting a student from giving a speech as part of a university-organized event qualifies as "disciplinary sanctions." But I agree that this was likely a bad decision on USC's part, largely for the reasons that FIRE mentions.

To elaborate on the heckler's veto point, behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated: If all it takes to cancel an event is that "discussion relating to [the event] has taken on an alarming tenor," that just encourages people with all sorts of views on all sorts of issues to try to shut down speakers simply by producing more "alarming" chatter. And if there really were such serious threats that USC felt it had to shut down the event despite this risk, then USC should have at least expressly said that there were such serious threats, and stressed that it had called in law enforcement so that the threateners could be caught and punished.