When a mob gets to veto a valedictorian’s speech

On Tuesday, the University of Southern California canceled a planned graduation speech by its valedictorian, a young woman named Asna Tabassum. My New York Times colleague Stephanie Saul reported that the “school said the decision stemmed from security concerns based on emails and other electronic communications warning of a plan to disrupt the commencement, including at least one that targeted Ms. Tabassum.”

Shortly after Tabassum had been named valedictorian, two student groups, Trojans for Israel and Chabad, objected. Her social media bio apparently included a link to a group that condemns Zionism as a “racist settler-colonial ideology.” Trojans for Israel said Tabassum “openly traffics antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric.”

Oddly enough, Andrew T. Guzman, the university’s provost, claimed the decision to cancel Tabassum’s address “has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement.” While Guzman may be correct as a matter of broad legal principle — there is no right to be a graduation speaker — he is completely wrong that the decision to cancel has nothing to do with free speech.

In fact, canceling a speech because of future safety concerns is a more egregious form of censorship than the classic “heckler’s veto,” when protesters silence speakers by disrupting their speeches. USC’s decision to cancel Tabassum’s speech was a form of anticipatory heckler’s veto. USC canceled the speech before the heckling could even start.


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