Laws without morality are useless

Dan Perry
5 min readDec 7, 2023

The elite universities’ bureaucrats have stumbled cringingly on antisemitism

So this happened: The presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, stupendously elite institutions all three, appeared before the US Congress and refused to state that calls for genocide against Jews were a violation of their codes of ethics. One said it was a matter of context; another said something about words needing to become actions before being actionable.

Well, OK. I appreciate freedom of speech. And I understand a willingness to look ridiculous in order to maximize the personal utility of a plum position like president of a university that charges nearly $100,000/year and often rewards students with starvation-wage teaching assistants instead of professors. It’s not an illogical scam.

But at the same time, the disgrace of it vexes me. I attended the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s and earned my Masters Degree at its Ivy League rival, Columbia University. That pedigree provided me value, and I have tried to give back. I volunteered to be on the board of the Penn and Wharton Club of Israel, for example. That club recently disaffiliated from the university because of its seeming struggles with understanding and projecting that antisemitism and Hamas are both quite bad.

To be sure, recent decades have seen positive changes in America’s elite universities. For example, back when I was at Penn, the presidents of that university as well as the other two who appeared in Washington Tuesday were men. There’s nothing wrong with men — unless there is a patriarchy, which there definitely was. Now all three holders of these positions are women.

But some changes are not so positive.

These universities used to be bastions of liberalism, which I considered good: Free speech, intellectual freedom, unfettered discourse and the pursuit of truth. Now, because of the progressive revolution, they are looking very much more like bastions of illiberalism. They used to be beacons of humanity as well. Now the presidents refuse to condemn calls to genocide unless they “turn to action.”

Asked whether students calling for the genocide of Jews (which happened) violate the university’s code of conduct, Penn President Elizabeth Magill equivocated: “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment… It is a context-dependent decision.”

This earned a rebuke from the (Democratic) governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro, who said: “Leaders have a responsibility to speak and act with moral clarity, and Liz Magill failed to meet that simple test… Frankly, I thought her comments were absolutely shameful. It should not be hard to condemn genocide.”

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Defenders of the three argue that the hearing was a cynical ploy by Republicans to tear down higher education and that they were asked to analyze legally complex codes of conduct in an atmosphere that lacked patience for the deliberative processes that aim to be fair to all students. Moreover, they say, the prevalence and intensity of antisemitic events on their campuses have been exaggerated and there have been efforts at improvement even amid the agitations. And, of course, that context matters.

All reasonable and quite possibly true. But it should nonetheless not have been so hard for overpaid bureaucrats with strong academic backgrounds to also make crystal clear that they even if content matters, calls for genocide are to be discouraged with extreme prejudice and a sense of urgency.

And honestly, does context always really matter? Here’s a question for these deep thinkers: What would you do if confronted with calls at rallies on campus to restore slavery and impose it on all African Americans? What would you do if students held rallies and symposia on restoring the death penalty at the federal level for those who commit acts of homosexuality? Would you appear in Washington and prevaricate?

Would you issue unequivocal condemnations, or would you blunder into a discussion about the nuance and the context?

The context in question is the war between Israel and Hamas, and the strong emotions and fevered debates that the catastrophe has unleased. Delicate business, no doubt. One must proceed with caution.

But there is also another context.

It is hard not to view this as part of the massive gaslighting campaign that has produced the idea that universities should be “safe spaces” from offence — as opposed to quite specifically places where one expects to be challenged (and if lucky, offended). It’s understandable that American students — aka teenagers — forget that university is the place to acquire introspection and doubt, critical thinking and intellectual fortitude. That their teachers forget it is the stuff of crumbling empires.

The defense of the university presidents amounts to a claims that these “leaders” were sticking to the letter of the law. Essentially, that the US Constitution protects free speech, which some may think includes calls to genocide. But does it really?

There are limits of freedom of speech in the United States, established through legal precedents and interpretations by the courts, usually the Supreme Court. These include restrictions if speech presents a “clear and present danger” to public safety; if it explicitly encourages or incites imminent lawless action; if it directly incites violence; and when it constitutes a “true threat” to commit harm to another person.

Also, the issue at hand was the university codes of conduct, which like US state laws have some latitude versus the First Amendment to the Constitution, which is the source of the guarantee of free speech.

Years ago, I came into possession of a quite large University of Pennsylvania flag. The circumstances are not important, and my memory is hazy. But what is not hazy is my recollection of the Penn insignia on the flag. There was a fish there, which seems to symbolize wisdom in some cultures. And there was some Latin script.

It said the following: “Leges sine moribus vanae.” That means that laws without morality are in vain, or more precisely, are useless. For as long as she clings to the position, the current president of Penn might remember those words.

I would propose another motto to the trio of bureaucratic bumblers who preferred to turn a major clarifying moment in the war against bigotry into an occasion for legalistic quibbles. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose work they may have heard of: A foolish nitpickery is the hobgoblin of cowardly minds.



Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.