USC President addresses school's pro-Palestine protests in open letter

USC President Carol Folt wrote an open letter to the "Trojan Family" stressing the steps the school announced to ensure that students can finish finals "in a quiet, safe academic environment – and that our graduating students can enjoy peaceful and joyous commencement ceremonies."

In addition, with emotions still running high on the Los Angeles campus following protests over the war in Gaza, Folt took a firm stand toward protesters who might continue to be disruptive.

"Let me be absolutely clear," she wrote in the letter released Friday. "Free speech and assembly do not include the right to obstruct equal access to campus, damage property, or foment harassment, violence, and threats. Nor is anyone entitled to obstruct the normal functions of our university, including commencement.

"...When laws and policies that apply to everyone are repeatedly and flagrantly violated – there must be consequences."

Folt's letter came a day after USC implemented updated campus-entry procedures as it remains under a state of heightened security. It also came a day after the school revealed plans for a "Trojan Family Graduate Celebration" at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Thursday, to replace the previously canceled main stage commencement ceremony amid the pro-Palestinian protests.

According to the university's Department of Public Safety, vehicle and pedestrian access to the campus is available at the McCarthy and McClintock entrances. The entry at Watt Way is not open, but DPS officials said it or other locations may be used as exits to help relieve vehicle congestion.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: USC President responds to 90+ arrests from pro-Palestine protests on campus

A separate, temporary interior perimeter fence is in place, with pedestrian access available at McCarthy Way and the quad; Watt Way and 34th Street; and McClintock Avenue and Childs Way.

Entry is still limited to students and employees with IDs. Pre-registered guests must show a QR code available from the website, as well as a government-issued ID.

USC announced late Friday afternoon it is pausing visitor registration because the "campus is very busy with events and construction work to prepare for commencement," but existing visitor passes will be honored.

University officials said all bags will be subject to search. People wearing masks will be asked to lower them briefly to verify identification, according to the university.

Conditions on the USC campus have remained relatively calm in recent days, a far cry from the scene last week when 93 people were arrested following a mass protest and attempted occupation of Alumni Park.

On Wednesday, dozens of USC faculty members held a march through the campus in support of protesters, calling in part for amnesty for those who were arrested last week.

The Wednesday march remained peaceful, with some students joining the faculty in the late-afternoon procession. It happened hours after a virtual meeting was held between members of the campus Academic Senate and Folt, who was joined by Provost Andrew Guzman.

Folt wrote on social media Wednesday afternoon that the meeting was "to explain our reasoning and answer their thoughtful and direct questions about our recent decisions."

"Rich & sometimes opposing views are essential to a great university," Folt wrote. "Trust is built every day & we hope this was a step forward."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Protests at USC after pro-Palestinian valedictorian’s graduation speech got canceled

In her letter, Folt wrote that "the university has initiated disciplinary review processes for individuals who have violated both our policies and the law. We will take any further actions required to maintain campus safety and security, consistent with our legal obligations."

"The university is legally obligated to ensure that students, faculty, and staff can move freely throughout our campus while pursuing their studies, work, and research," Folt wrote. "Every part of our campuses, including Alumni Park, must be fully accessible and free from vandalism and harassment."

USC became a focal point of Southland pro-Palestinian protests following its decision to cancel valedictorian Asna Tabassum's commencement speech in response to complaints about online posts that critics called antisemitic. USC officials insisted the move was solely a security issue, not a political decision.

As tensions continued mounting – leading to the mass protest April 24 – the university eventually opted to cancel its May 10 main stage commencement in Alumni Park altogether, but vowed to move forward with the usual array of smaller satellite graduation ceremonies for the school's individual colleges. Those ceremonies are set to begin Wednesday.