"The legal bar is often the lowest bar," Pilgrim said. "Just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean you should."
All said, the Penn State students happened to be caught doing something that probably happens quite often on college campuses and elsewhere in America.
Baylor University is investigating some of its students this week after similar pictures surfaced of them dressed in Mexican costumes. They showed five women dressed in serapes, sombreros and mustaches with what appears to be dirt on their faces, according to CNN affiliate KXXV. They also were wearing green signs around their neck that read "green card," or a permanent visa.
But there's another piece to this story that is troubling to Pilgrim. And that gets back to the heart of the letter issued by Penn State authorities.
Penn State is a place of higher learning, a place of grooming for future leaders. They are the ones, Pilgrim said, who will play important roles in an increasingly diverse America.
University officials said they will not pursue disciplinary action against the students in the Halloween party photo.
"These disturbing behaviors involved expressive rights protected under various federal and state laws -- rights which we strongly support, and which we honor by not vainly pursuing unlawful disciplinary action against the students involved," the letter said.
But it also went on to urge all Penn Staters to reflect on the value of diversity in the university community and beyond.
"We must both celebrate our differences and embrace our common humanity," the letter said. "If we can do so, on our campuses and beyond, we will be better, our university will be better, and the world will be better."
Ultimately for people like Pilgrim who study these matters, the Penn State incident boils down to this: Was it a news story for its shock value? Perhaps not. But if anyone is asking what's wrong with what the students did, Pilgrim might say that was a question that seemed more likely in 1952, not in 2012.