Pop quiz: You are a professor at a respected university writing questions for an exam. Do you:
A) Write a racially insensitive and divisive question that places an unfair burden on the vanishingly small number of students of color to advocate in favor of extremist racists in Ferguson?
If you are UCLA Law Professor Robert Goldstein, you apparently choose option "A" every time. Goldstein has taught courses Constitutional Law, Constitutional Criminal Procedure, Child Abuse, and Civil Rights (emphasis mine). But a question on one of his exams this week has caused a lot of controversy among non-white students at UCLA.
Students report that this question was on Goldstein's exam: "Write a memorandum for District Attorney Robert McCulloch on the constitutional merits of indicting Michael Brown's stepfather for advocating illegal activity when he yelled 'Burn this bitch down,' after McCulloch announced the grand jury's decision."
It's one thing to ask aspiring lawyers to argue out of both sides of their mouths. Sophistry is a legal skill worth developing. But it's quite another thing to ask students to advocate for an extremist point that is shared by only the worst people in an exam setting. You don't give your students an exam where they have to defend Holocaust deniers or ISIS terrorists. It's inappropriate and not a fair measure of their understanding of law.
And this particular question places an unfair burden on African-American students to emotionally detach from still-recent acts of essentially legalized terrorism against the African-American community. Can it be done? Sure, I guess. Should it be required as part of taking a test? Absolutely not. Goldstein is testing non-white students in his class differently than others. He is challenging his minority students to deal with an issue that his white students don't necessarily have to care about.
Look, maybe you think its a fair question. But the point here is that a lot of black people didn't. And since (ahem) #BlackLivesMatter, it really isn't that hard to write a stupid exam that nobody thinks is racist. The opinions of black students at UCLA are equally valid. Why would you write something that targets them when there are like A BILLION race-neutral ways of asking the same question? Goldstein had all semester to make whatever statement he wanted to make about Ferguson, speech, riots, and whatever else. An exam should be a test of the law, not a test of an African-American's ability to wrestle with controversial points the white students don't have to be bothered by.
It's possible that Goldstein didn't think about all of this, because reports indicate that there are just a smattering of students of color in his class. It's possible that UCLA just creates an environment where professors are not obligated to give a crap about the views of their black students. They've been accused of that before.
But it's also possible that Goldstein just does this kind of thing and nobody calls him on it. One student reviewed Goldstein's old exams and reported that he's made references to "homophobic black evangelicals" and "anti-Zionist Muslim Americans aiding Hamas," in prior exams. Again, this doesn't sound to me like trying to make your exams relevant to current events. It sounds like deliberately trying to piss off non-white students and testing their reactions.
I reached out to UCLA Law School Dean Rachel Moran about this situation. This evening, she provided me with the following statement:
Professor Goldstein intended question 1 in the exam to be a topical examination of 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. As a result, he has communicated his regrets to the class and will be adjusting the grading appropriately for all students who took the exam.
In a letter to his students this evening, Professor Goldstein now says:
Question 1 involved a brief actual news report from CNN and the New York Times. The purpose of Question 1 was to consider the clear and present danger test as a First Amendment defense against prosecution for speech itself rather than illegal action, and the effort of the Court to give breathing space to political actors to engage in "hyperbole" in the heat of the political moment. As with many of my exams in this upper-level elective class, questions may be drawn from current legal issues in the news or from recent court reports. This helps make the exam educational and relevant. Throughout the course we have explored controversial, deeply felt issues involving many different minority voices and victims. The province of a First Amendment lawyer is controversial. I recognize, though, that the recent disturbing events and subsequent decisions in Ferguson and New York make this subject too raw to make it a useful opportunity for many of you to demonstrate what you have learned in this class this year.
Goldstein goes on to say that he will disregard the question while grading the exam.
Let's hope that in the future, the controversy is equally shared by all members of the UCLA Law community. Black people should do their best to show up for their exams despite the racial tensions around them. But they don't have to be insulted while taking their finals.