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Law school exam question on Ferguson shooting draws criticism

By Shreya Maskara

Dec. 11, 2014 2:01 a.m.

Some students at the UCLA School of Law have expressed concerns after a professor asked an exam question this week relating to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo.

The exam, given by Professor Robert Goldstein in Constitutional Law II, asked students to write a memo related to the Ferguson shooting. Some students who took the exam said they found it difficult to write about the incident in terms of the first amendment while ignoring issues such as police brutality.

Question I (35 minutes)

CNN News reported: On Nov. 24, St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch announced in a publicized press conference that Police Officer Darren Wilson (who has since resigned) would not be indicted in the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown. Michael Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, was with hundreds of protesters assembled outside the police station, listening on loudspeakers and car radios when they learned Officer Wilson was not being charged. Standing on the hood of a car, Mr. Head embraced Michael Brown’s mother. Mr. Head asked someone for a bullhorn but it was not passed to him. He turned to the crowd, stomped on the hood and shouted, repeatedly, “Burn this bitch down!”

Police Chief Tom Jackson told Fox “News,” “We are pursuing those comments … We can’t let Ferguson and the community die [as a result of the riots and fires following McCulloch’s announcement]. Everyone who is responsible for taking away people’s property, their livelihoods, their jobs, their businesses — every single one of them needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

County Attorney Robert McCulloch asks lawyers in his office whether to seek an indictment against Head by relying on a statute forbidding breach of the peace and another prohibiting rioting (six or more persons assembling to violate laws with violence). A recent hire in the office, you are asked to write a memo discussing the relevant 1st Amendment issues in such a prosecution. Write the memo.

Source: UCLA School of Law Professor Eugene Volokh’s response to the exam question in The Washington Post

Shyrissa Dobbins, a second-year law student who took the exam and is also chair of the Black Law Students Association, said the exam question outlined how Louis Head, Michael Brown’s stepfather, yelled “Burn this bitch down” after police Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for shooting Brown. The question called for students to write a memo on the likelihood of indicting Brown’s stepfather and to explain arguments that the defense might make.

In an email to the class following the exam, Goldstein said that questions in exams for upper-level elective classes are usually based on current legal issues and reports to make education relevant. But in this case, he said he thinks recent events in Ferguson and New York could have made the question difficult to respond to for some students. Goldstein could not be interviewed for this article.

The August shooting has sparked protests nationwide and led to debate and protests about racial profiling, police brutality and racism against people of color in the American justice system.

“Daily I think about Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and I have a challenge,” Dobbins said. “Every day I think about this injustice and how I’m in a law school that won’t even make a statement about it.”

Hussain Turk, a second-year law student who took the exam, said he thinks the question was problematic because he thinks exams should not ask students to address controversial events. He added that he thinks the question was more emotionally difficult for black students to answer than for other students.

“These kinds of questions create a hostile learning environment for students of color, especially black students who are already disadvantaged by the institution,” Turk said.

Goldstein apologized for the question in an email.

“I recognize … that the recent disturbing and painful events and subsequent decisions in Ferguson and New York make this subject too raw to be an opportunity for many of you to demonstrate what you have learned in this class this year,” Goldstein said in the email.

Goldstein added that he will discount scores students receive on the question if it lowers the overall score of the student.

In an email statement, law school Dean Rachel Moran said the question was intended to have students examine the Clear and Present Danger Defense.

“In retrospect, however, he understands that the question was ill-timed for the examination and could have been problematic for students given the anguish among many in our community over the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases,” Moran said.

Contributing reports by Ara Shirinian, Bruin contributor.


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