Posting ‘Zionists must die’ is awful. But it shouldn't get student kicked out of college.

Maria Lima Valdez’s year has gotten off to a rocky start.

Last month, the Cornell University undergrad and former Biden White House intern allegedly posted “ZIONISTS MUST DIE!” on Instagram. And now she’s facing potential punishment from her university.

Should she?

Apparently, Lima Valdez was reacting to news that the son of an Al Jazeera journalist had died in an Israeli airstrike.

The post attempted to couch her exclamation by claiming it wasn’t antisemitic since Zionists and Jews “are not the same.” It’s still an awful, hateful thing to say.

Yet it’s 100% protected free speech, no matter how vile it sounds.

Cornell University students walk through campus on November 3, 2023 in Ithaca, New York. The university canceled classes after one of its students is accused of making violent antisemitic threats.
Cornell University students walk through campus on November 3, 2023 in Ithaca, New York. The university canceled classes after one of its students is accused of making violent antisemitic threats.

This investigation is just the latest instance of the antisemitism that has plagued our nation’s college campuses following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. And universities have shown little adeptness at dealing with these ugly displays. University presidents at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have lost their jobs as a result (at least in part).

As I’ve written before, it has also brought to light hypocrisies embedded in higher education’s adherence to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), which by its nature pits certain groups against others.

DEI divides us: With Claudine Gay out, Harvard can double down on DEI or embrace freedom and true diversity

Colleges shouldn’t overcorrect on speech

In the case of anti-Jewish sentiment, it seems college administrators only started caring about these actions on their campuses when they garnered widespread attention. It’s hard to imagine such a lackluster response if the offended students were Black or LGBTQ+.

Regardless, that doesn’t mean colleges should overcorrect now by cracking down on more speech, which seems to be their knee-jerk response. That's what happened after Liz Magill, former president of Penn, offered a pathetic response when asked during a congressional hearing whether calling for the genocide of Jews would violate Penn's policies.

Following immediate backlash, Magill tried to do damage control but only made things worse. In a video statement, she signaled she wanted the university to backtrack from its stated commitment to free speech. Magill resigned shortly thereafter.

Similarly, Cornell President Martha Pollack issued a statement after reports of Lima Valdez’s post came to light: “Cornell Police and the Office of Student Conduct are investigating and if we determine that it was posted by a member of the Cornell community, they will be held fully accountable and appropriately sanctioned. This post is heinous, and I condemn it in the strongest terms.”

While Pollack didn’t name Lima Valdez, the organization StopAntisemitism called her out publicly on X, formerly Twitter.

That caught the attention of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which came to the student's defense.

In a letter to Pollack, FIRE’s senior program officer Zach Greenberg pointed out that Cornell must honor its own policies, which allow for even offensive and hateful speech.

“Cornell cannot keep its promise to respect students’ expressive freedoms if it also punishes Valdez,” Greenberg wrote.

Lima Valdez faces an interim suspension pending a disciplinary hearing, Greenberg told me.As of this writing, the university has not yet announced punishment and it's not clear what that may look like.

Allow as much speech as possible on campus

Sanctioning Lima Valdez could have a real chilling effect on campus speech, said Greenberg, in addition to contradicting Cornell’s own guidelines.

Cornell already ranks low in FIRE’s annual free speech ranking, in part because of how students feel limited in what they can express on campus. Although it’s a private institution and not bound by the First Amendment, it should uphold its promises and mission.

Administrators shouldn’t make the environment for free expression worse.

Balance speech that poses actual danger to campus live with speech that doesn't

On the flipside, however, they need to be ready to act when students (or faculty) violate school policies. When protected speech crosses over into harassment, intimidation or some other violation, it must be dealt with swiftly and consistently.

That’s what happened last fall, when police arrested a Cornell student on charges he posted true threats online about his desire to harm – even kill – Jewish students.

Culture of intolerance: Jewish Cornell students are afraid. So much for college diversity, equity and inclusion.

What Lima Valdez is accused of didn’t rise to that standard, even though the post was a stupid thing to say.

Much like other prominent Ivy League presidents, Pollack has faced recent calls for her ouster after the university’s response to antisemitism, in addition to its DEI policies. So far, the trustees have stood by her.

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When it comes to navigating these issues going forward, Greenberg said it’s pretty simple.

“I think universities can address these political headwinds and satisfy their donors by simply sticking to their principles and following their policies,” he told me this week. “They have to protect free speech like they promised to do, and they have to address student safety concerns by addressing true threats and disruptive conduct.”

Apparently, that’s easier said than done. In this case, I think Lima Valdez has already learned her lesson.

Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at or on X, formerly Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Did Cornell student post 'Zionists must die'? Protect free speech.