Newsletter: USC wanted to silence its valedictorian. It only made the university look clumsy and weak

USC student march in support of valedictorian Asna Tabassum on campus in Los Angeles Thursday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, April 20, 2024. Here’s what we’ve been doing in Opinion.

As far as I know, Barbra Streisand had nothing to do with USC’s decision to rescind its offer for valedictorian Asna Tabassum to speak at the university’s commencement next month. But a phenomenon bearing her name — one that originated in the L.A. area, no less — should have made USC officials think twice before trying to silence Tabassum.

The so-called Streisand effect, which is when an attempt to suppress information only brings more attention to it, has its roots in a 2003 lawsuit that the singer filed to remove a photo of her Malibu mansion from the public domain. That ham-fisted effort at censorship caused interest in the photo to explode, garnering attention that mere availability to the public rarely does. Chances are you’ve seen a photo of Streisand’s Malibu mansion only because of the Streisand effect.


So it is with Tabassum: You probably wouldn’t have heard of her or known of her support for the Palestinian cause if USC hadn’t thrust her into public awareness by canceling her graduation speech in the name of campus security because of unnamed threats. University leaders had to have known this would happen — and their response Friday was to disinvite more speakers. At this rate, graduating students will be lucky to have a ceremony at all.

This is all public-relations reasoning. If USC was trying to avoid controversy over the possibility that its valedictorian might criticize Israel’s war in Gaza, then it was ignoring the rightful function of a university, UCLA Jewish history professor David N. Meyers and Muslim Public Affairs Council president Salam Al-Marayati argue in an op-ed article for The Times. “We want and need our students to be leaders; they need to encounter divergent and challenging perspectives that allow for innovation and the production of knowledge that can serve society,” they wrote, encouraging USC to correct its error by reinviting Tabassum to speak.

The Times’ editorial board expresses free-speech concerns: “Silencing her would ... be a sad statement about USC’s priorities. The message this sends to graduating seniors is that when a threat to free speech arrives, it’s time to cave.”

Finally, in letters to the editor, readers fault USC for leaving Tabassum out in the cold. We’ll end with part of the letter written by Fadia Rafeedie Khoury, a reader from La Crescenta who graduated from UC Berkeley at the top of her class in 2000 and spoke at her commencement, where then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright had just addressed the students. Addressing USC directly, Khoury writes:

“When I graduated first in my class from UC Berkeley nearly 25 years ago, I used my voice to raise awareness of an inhumane U.S. sanctions policy that was killing Iraqi civilians. University security took steps to protect the commencement speaker, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, from embarrassment over being confronted for having shared her grisly view that the price of the sanctions policy was ‘worth it’ despite the toll on innocent children.

“But my voice was heard from that podium and celebrated from Berkeley to L.A. to Baghdad to Occupied Palestine.


“Instead of encouraging your students to question the status quo, you take active steps to silence them — even your best and brightest. What a shame.”

Is Arizona’s abortion ban a return to the 19th century? No, it’s actually worse. Historian Kevin Waite says the author of the 1864 ban on abortion in Arizona, newly put into effect by that state’s Supreme Court in 2024, was actually a progressive for his time: “Although many of [William T.] Howell’s views have aged poorly, he argued against the era’s prevailing patriarchal dogma and in favor of women’s property rights. Even his abortion law was guided by concerns about maternal health, not the right-wing, religious orthodoxy that animates much of the antiabortion movement today.”

A disconcerting wave of crime in Venice, caught on camera. Columnist Robin Abcarian, who lives in Venice, says she has always felt uneasy over the proliferation of security cameras outside businesses and on seemingly everyone’s front porch. But a recent spate of crime in her neighborhood has her reconsidering: “After what this neighborhood has gone through in the last month, I am so grateful for the technology. Without it, a brutal suspected rapist wouldn’t be in custody.”

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The hush money trial has only just begun, but it’s not a good look for Candidate Trump. Columnist Jackie Calmes explains the poor optics for New York defendant Donald Trump: “From the start, Trump has made his campaign for reelection an extension of his legal fights, all about him and his grievances. For a time, it worked; he rolled over his Republican rivals for the party’s nomination. Those days are past. He’s penned in.”

After divorce, a miscarriage and career false starts, her L.A. life surprised her. Author Alexis Landau describes her life as an “endorsement of second chances” — failing at first, then trying again with better results. Her first marriage failed quickly, before she went home and met Phillip. They got married and she got pregnant, which ended tragically in miscarriage before she had two more children. She estimates that 30 publishers passed on her first novel before Random House bought her second. “This is our life,” she writes. “Thank goodness for second chances.”

More from this week in opinion

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