February 15, 2019 • By Dennis Beaver
“I am a police detective in a small Northern California town for and enjoy your column which appears in the Eureka Times-Standard. It is one of the first things that I and a number of fellow officers read and discuss.
“Several months ago you wrote a timely article about the threat to the presumption of innocence. While a police officer might strongly believe that a suspect is guilty, without conducting an investigation, and lacking credible proof of wrongdoing, you can’t just go around arresting people, tossing them in jail and destroying their reputations.
“Fundamental fairness is something that we should all be entitled to, especially people who lack the power to defend themselves. And, Mr. Beaver, I am writing you because one such person is my 19 year-old, college freshman son, Rick, facing expulsion from college, accused of plagiarism on an open book test. We need your help.”
“Use Any Source – Your Textbook, Newspaper Articles, the Internet”
As I learned, Rick has a full-scholarship to a mid-western Christian college. The teaching assistant for his U.S. History class administered an “Open Book” test–which I have seen including the young man’s answers. Test instructions only state, “You may use any source – textbook, newspaper articles, including the internet.”
That was it. There was no requirement of giving the source of the information provided in a student’s answer. That omission is critical in my legal opinion.
“I used everything,” my reader’s son explained, “but as there was no requirement of stating the source–where the information came from–I didn’t include it. Even though our answers were correct, when the test was returned, two of us received a zero and were handed a letter stating that we had cheated, committed plagiarism and that the Dean of Students would likely expel us from the school!
“We would be notified in ten days of the decision. A chance to explain–a hearing of some type–was not allowed.”
Wrong Class for an Open Book Test
“This is so unfair. It is just ridiculous,” stated Beau Baez, Visiting Professor at the University Of North Dakota School Of Law. “An open book test is designed to see how students can apply information to problem-solving situations. Citations serve no real purpose if the teacher is looking for facts, such as ‘When was the American Civil War fought?’
But that was exactly what the T.A. was asking for – specific dates and summaries of historical events.
Professor Baez added, “What makes this so upsetting to me is that we’ve got a 19 year-old college kid who wasn’t required to cite the source of his answers. He followed those instructions, and answered the questions correctly.
“Also, this isn’t some major paper, but a simple exam. Rick isn’t trying to pass off information as his own, original research. As few high schools today do a good job of teaching writing skills, it probably didn’t occur to him to cite his sources. For any school to expel him would just be wrong.”
We also ran this situation by a friend of this column, David D. Schein, Director of Graduate Programs & Associate Professor at the Cameron School of Business, University of St. Thomas in Houston. Agreeing with Baez, Schein fells this is terribly unfair, stating:
“If the instructions for something like this test do not require citations, I would not penalize these two students. However, if it were for a paper, my instructions would require citations in APA 6 and they would therefore be penalized for failing to cite.”
Biblical Requirements of Fairness
Over the many years of writing You and the Law, I never had a situation like this to deal with, but as it is a Christian college, prior to contacting the school, some research into what the Bible says about fairness and due process was in order.
In fact, there are many references to what we would today call due process, giving a person a chance to defend themselves, requiring proof before punishment. So, well-fortified with Biblical citations, I reached the president of Rick’s school who was unaware of the pending expulsion.
Our conversation was brief and I asked for his help in seeing to it that what was clearly an arbitrary finding of plagiarism was simply wrong and the young man should be permitted to remain in school.
I was promised a return call within 24 hours.
January 30th was the coldest day much of America has seen in decades, but it brought with it a heart-warming phone call. “Counselor, you were correct. These students did nothing wrong. The T.A. needs a little talking to!”
And the next time Rick is home on break, he owes his mom a great big hug.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.