The Professor and the Insensitive Law School Exam Question

"Go ahead, tell Prof. Kingsfield that his exam is unfair because it triggers your emotions and you can't think straight. I dare you."

“Go ahead, tell Prof. Kingsfield that his exam is unfair because it triggers your emotions and you can’t think straight. I dare you.”

A Constitutional Law exam at UCLA Law School included this question:

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.

The question is a fair and legitimate one, and very typical of law school exams, which often ask students to apply course content to current events. Nonetheless, it provoked a controversy.

Shyrissa Dobbins, a second-year law student in the course and is chair of the Black Law Students Association, complained, “Daily I think about Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and I have a challenge. 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, argued that  exams should not ask students to address controversial events, and that the question was unfair, as it could be more emotionally difficult for black students to answer. “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.

There is only one proper rebuttal for this foolishness:

“Grow up, deal with your biases, start thinking like lawyers or find a profession you can handle.”

Pathetically, the law professor, Robert Goldstein apologized in an email in an e-mail to students, saying, “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,” and promised to discount scores students receive on the question if it lowers the overall score of the student.

Law school Dean Rachel Moran added to the misplaced sensitivity-fest, and her e-mail, said…

“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.”


1. It was not ill-timed. It was perfectly timed.

2. Will all students now have to be pre-screened for questions that might have emotional impact? No robbery questions for those whose families have suffered from theft, no real estate questions when a student’s parents lost their homes through foreclosure?

3. Any student who makes such a complaint is on-track to be a poor lawyer. The law school should be training such students not to be crippled by their emotions, not encouraging and validating unprofessional conduct.

4. Law professor Eugene Volokh states what is at stake here precisely, though he shirks his duty of pronouncing his fellow professor a craven, politically correct  weenie:

“To be sure, some people might be deeply emotionally invested in an issue, and have a hard time viewing it from both sides. But a key part of a law school education is to learn how to do this, even when you are emotionally invested. If you want to work for, say, the NAACP (or the NRA), you will do your clients no favors by being so zealous in your opinions that you fail to grasp the best arguments on the other side. And that is also true when the matter is still raw in your mind. Often you have to make arguments just days after some traumatic event (here the exam was two weeks after). Indeed, often you have to make arguments just days after a traumatic event that involves you much more directly than the Ferguson incident involved UCLA students — for instance, what you see as a racist verdict that will send your innocent client to prison, or an appellate decision that you think unjustly rejects an argument that you’ve spent years developing. As a lawyer, you need to master your emotions enough to deal with such situations. As a student, you have to learn how to do that….Instead, it seems to me, students — especially (though not only) in constitutional law classes — should be expected to deal with such questions, both in class and on exams. Indeed, if professors studiously avoid any such questions on their exams, that itself will make the exams weaker at evaluating students’ knowledge and skills. And any policy of accepting demands to remove or avoid some such questions will lead to demands to remove or avoid still more. Indeed, it may lead people to be more upset when they see some such questions, because they have been taught that they are entitled not to be confronted with such questions.”

That’s correct: you have to learn to do that. The professor and the school, to the contrary, are apologizing for making it clear that this is true. That’s educational malpractice.

5. And, once again, the fair and legally proper verdict by the Ferguson grand jury is misleadingly linked to the as-yet incomprehensible verdict in the Garner death. This is pure “Print the legend” stuff: the Left will make sure that the death of Michael Brown is remembered as the murder of a innocent man with his hands up by a racist cop, because he Brown was black, and it will repeat this lie over and over again until that is the legend that becomes truth. It’s so useful, after all.

It even gets black law students a break on their exams.


Sources: Washington Post (Volokh); UCLA


17 thoughts on “The Professor and the Insensitive Law School Exam Question

  1. Well, at least they didn’t try to link Trayvon in as well. There are worse things. Every professor drops the ball like this on occasion. Who are you to judge this professor? It’s not his fault the administration came after him.

    I was going to continue in that vein, but felt dirty deliberately seeking to apply as many rationalizations as I could even in jest. I’m a little serious about Trayvon because there is a large segment of the populace that link all 3 as if they were evidence of a racist justice system

      • The thing is, the justice system, if not exactly racist, is almost certainly racially biased. Unfortunately, it’s a complex problem, and as in so many other issues, activists would rather punch emotional buttons by simplifying and lying rather than having a responsible, honest, frank conversation thast acknowledges difficult realities. And for some reason, Charles thinks I should endorse that.

    • It’s a fun game though.

      The real challenge is fitting them in at just the right balance and tempo for Jack to just about question whether or not his efforts here are futile, but not quite.

  2. These students were so wrapped up in their feelings (insert eye roll here) that they missed their opportunity. The professor’s question was open enough that they could have presented a reasoned argument for not perusing prosecution. It is an excellent question. I fear for our future when I read, “Hussain Turk, a second-year law student who took the exam, argued that exams should not ask students to address controversial events, and that the question was unfair, as it could be more emotionally difficult for black students to answer.” When are the tough questions to be asked?

  3. I have avoided weighing in on the Brown, Garner et al cases because no reasoned argument will assuage all those that seek retribution for perceived injustice.

    However, Occams Razor would suggest that all those law students who feel that a biased system is stacked against persons of color should in fact become prosecutors instead of civil rights activist attorneys.

    If I understand their perceptions correctly, many who believe the system favors whites over persons of color justify that belief by relative rates of incarceration, longer prison sentences, and other disparate treatment within the criminal justice system. It seems to me that prosecutorial discretion with respect to charging, indicting and convicting such persons lies at the heart of their complaint. If that is the case, then they should join the ranks of prosecutors whereby they would have the power to make the decision to prosecute or not, what charges they will pursue, and what sentence they seek for persons of color or, in some cases against police officers that they feel used excessive force.

    If for example they do not want to prosecute drug dealers and gang members because it would disproportionately incarcerate more persons of color or, if they want to send a chilling message to police officers that any action on their part that inflicts harm on a person of color would subject them to indictment and prosecution then so be it and the communities that these activist prosecutors serve will reap the benefits of a system that is giving them the justice they desire.

    Anyone who wants to be part of a solution must have some decision making power and be willing take full responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.

    • “I have avoided weighing in on the Brown, Garner et al cases because no reasoned argument will assuage all those that seek retribution for perceived injustice.”

      So, because enough people’s poor widdle fee-fees are hurt based on colossally incorrect premises your solution is to let them go on being ignorant?


      • Tex:
        My rationale is that I don’t want to waste my time trying to convince others who will never evaluate the facts but instead want to see injustice at every turn so that they can excuse their own behavior.

        If you noticed I gave them a solution in paragraphs 2 through 5.

        • Your solution is spiffy, for a tiny subset of the group that fits the description of “all those that seek retribution for perceived injustice”. It doesn’t undo my observation that your solution for mass hysteria derived from pure ignorance is to “avoid weighing in on the Brown, Garner et al cases”.

          • Tex:
            If I had a solution for the many that wish ignore reality I would give it.
            I can talk (write) until I am blue in the face and never get these people to open their minds. So my not weighing in should not be perceived as a solution for mass hysteria. Actually, I think it is quite the opposite. These cases allow some to foment hatred and divisiveness. Why give them ammunition to label you as against them or another reason to keep yelling back.

            I see some of them as petulant children that will continue the tantrum if they think it will get them something. I did not want to just yell and scream back at them.

            My solution is to DEMAND from that community an action plan to root out violence and crime that they will support. Financial contributions to their causes to get their support must be off the table. They should be asking us to support their plan for improvement not demand that we give them a plan for community betterment. This should be their plan, complete with success metrics, processes and procedures because it is their community. Until they learn that they cannot simply continue to demand that others resolve their problems and then complain when they do, nothing will change.

            I won’t waste my time on anyone that is unwilling to take the first step in making their own life better and safer.

  4. I wonder if these law students would support the suggestion that black citizens not even be summoned for jury duty if the case in question involves interracial violence, since some of them are likely to find it upsetting. It seems the logical next step to me, if the priority of the justice system is going to be making sure no one’s feelings ever get hurt rather than attempting to accomplish justice.

  5. I recall during my earlier years of military training in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, our professors upperclassmen confronted us with a similarly difficult question problem. When we failed to perform we were given an out, “do 1000 pushups” they said.

    One member of my group said “that’s too difficult, we can’t do that”.

    The upperclassmen responded: “Grow up, deal with your biases, start thinking like lawyers or find a profession you can handle.”
    “Suck it up and quit being babies”.

    Because see, we were being trained into a serious profession in which when the *real* trials hit, we wouldn’t have any “outs” or anyone worried about our precious little feelings, and that if anyone couldn’t handle those pressures, miserable things like rigorous training and tests were designed to convince those wavering souls that another profession might be their best option.

    To these lawyer students:

    Suck it up and quit being babies.

  6. I was waiting for some sort of twist in the question once I saw the part where it referred to Fox “News”. Is that the Professor’s phrasing or yours?

  7. I went to school with the snowflakes in this story. They were unbearable, and they dragged down the whole class with their whining. Doubt either of them passed the bar.

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