Wednesday, February 26

Law school exam question on Ferguson shooting draws criticism

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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  • Chris Andersen

    Oh, my! More fragile law students still suffering from some form of vicarious post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting over four months ago.

    Strange, because I didn’t know Michael Brown, either, and it didn’t bother me at all.

  • Steve White

    Assuming Mr. Hussain Turk manages to graduate and pass the bar, what is he going to do the first time he’s asked to write a memo about something that has been in the news and something that upsets him oh so terribly?

    And is asked to do so because it’s now PART OF HIS JOB DESCRIPTION AS A LAWYER?

    The whole point of becoming a professional is learning how to think and perform under pressure. It’s about being able to set aside one’s personal thoughts and issues and do one’s job.

    Mr. Turk might be asked to do something really upsetting — defending a murder suspect, or a rapist, or (gasp!) a Republican. How’s he going to do that if he gets the vapors?


    • Mengles

      Well said. Robert Goldstein wrote an excellent test question and his students complain and whine. Our generation is in trouble.

  • Capablanca

    Activist students should have had an advantage in answering the question because they would have already thought about the episode details and about the legal strategies. Is the real problem that the activists are unable to see and explain both constitutional sides of the news event, as a good attorney would need to do? if so, what does that suggest about their avid support for just one side?

  • Agency_Loss

    “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.” Yeahhh the point of a University education, particularly in law, is to teach you be able to critically think in the real world.

    • Mengles

      Mr. Turk apparently only wants to critically think on topics of his choosing.

  • riverebec1

    “the question was more emotionally difficult for black students to answer than for other students.” That presumptious comment aside, these students are not being asked to answer the question from an emotional or racial viewpoint. They’re supposed to answer the question based on what they learned about the law, period! Is it any wonder kids today graduate from university stinking of stupid!

  • idrive405

    Why would law school ask you to consider controversial events? Let’s just stick to obvious subjects on which everyone agrees. That’s some “education.”

    I am ashamed of my degree. I’m glad I went there a generation ago.