The uncomfortable realities of free speech

By Matthew Gagnon

Earlier this month, biomedical engineering student Asna Tabassum, this year’s class valedictorian at the University of Southern California, was informed that she would not be allowed to make the traditional address to her graduating class. According to USC, this will be the first time that the university has prevented a valedictorian from speaking at the commencement ceremony.

USC’s disinvite came due to fallout from Tabassum’s political views related to the Israel-Hamas conflict in the Middle East. Tabassum has been accused of “promoting antisemitic views,” for calling Zionism a “racist settler-colonial ideology,” as well as liking controversial pro-Palestine Instagram posts. After she was announced as the valedictorian, a host of on- and off-campus groups attacked the selection, and called for a reconsideration, or for her to be silenced.

In a letter to the broader USC community, Provost Andrew Guzman claimed that USC had decided to cancel Tabassum’s speech due to security concerns. The situation, he said, had “escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement. We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses.”

For her part, Tabassum was incensed at the news. “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.”

Believe it or not, I actually agree with her. To be clear, I am decidedly pro-Israel, anti-Hamas, supportive of Israel’s campaign to wipe out Hamas as a long-term security threat, and reject nearly every opinion Tabassum holds about the conflict and the region. I am as close to the opposite of her worldview as a person can get, and believe me I would have absolutely no interest in the content of her speech, were she to have made it.

And yet, USC’s decision to abandon their own valedictorian, because of supposed security concerns and threats that have allegedly been made over her selection and potential speech, is an unconscionable betrayal of the university’s duty to protect free and open speech among its students. I believe the “security” claim is little more than an excuse for the university to walk away from controversy in the wake of increasing political tension nationally over this issue. 

I would have just as much of a problem with a pro-Israel valedictorian being silenced by pro-Palestinian groups, or really any politically motivated cancellations of any subject or perspective. College campuses have for too long grown comfortable with policing speech and bowing to pressure from the mob. It should never be necessary for me to agree with the subject of a cancellation to have a problem with that cancellation.

This unfortunate situation at USC preceded the current chaos that is occurring at Columbia University, NYU and other schools across the country, predicated by the very same political conflict. Students and faculty demonstrating against Israel have begun occupying campuses, disrupting classes and normal operations of the school, and resulting in mass arrests. Listening to the rhetoric of the protesters, much of it is shockingly, disturbingly antisemitic. At this point, the occupiers have essentially taken over several campuses, putting them on lockdown, to the point where professors and students are being denied access to their own institutions.

Once again, I am deeply uncomfortable with any American university doing anything to squelch the speech of their students and faculty, but I will admit to viewing this broader situation as slightly different from the USC case. 

In the public square, speech should always be allowed, no matter how disturbing and horrible, provided that the speech does not incite immediate violence, or contain direct and meaningful threats to individuals. Much of what I have heard and seen of the demonstrations on campuses across the country has gotten very close to that line, and when it crosses the line, as it has repeatedly, action must be taken.

Beyond that, disrupting the orderly operation of a public space — in this case, universities (even private ones like Columbia), but also places like highways — is not a right that is afforded to people as an extension of their fundamental right to speak. The moment these protests began occupying public or private property and disrupting the right of others to live, work, study and learn, they crossed a line that they should not be allowed to cross. Speech is fine, but infringing on the rights of others is not.

That does not mean the universities should use this as an excuse to silence protesters, but it does mean that order needs to be restored immediately.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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