JIM THIELMAN: My Only Law Class Was An Injustice

The last time I restrained a black man was when I spotted Vince in the Moorhead State University  bookstore. He was from King George, Va, about midway between the Civil War capitals of Washington, D.C, and Richmond, Va. Vince was back for our senior year in college after months of floating on the Potomac, or whatever people “back East” did during the summer.

I crept down an aisle with the stealth I had perfected as a kid watching “The Tonight Show” from a location undiscovered by my parents and put a bear hug on him from behind. This was 45 years ago, so he knew that it was one of his downtrodden classmates and not the cops.

Vince had a track and field scholarship. I was there through a lack of admission standards. We were both dumb enough to take the toughest mass communications course at Moorhead State as sophomores and boy, did I learn a lesson there. Which was: Even if misery seems inevitable, put it off as long as you can.

The Paper Chase

“Mass Communications Law” was taught by John Houseman as Charles W. Kingsfield. Well, John Houseman was an actor who, in “The Paper Chase,” played Charles W. Kingsfield, a sarcastic, intimidating law professor. The attorney teaching this Mass Comm law class was every bit that character.

Seniors talked about how difficult this class was. It was always seniors. No underclassman took this course. Vince and I decided to take this class as sophomores and get it out of the way. I seem to recall it was my idea.

There weren’t many African Americans at that college, but we had four or five in Mass Comm. Curtis was one. Vince and I were just hoping to duck and cover in the back of the room through nine weeks of this brutal night class. Curtis joined us. No one could have anticipated what would happen.

What happened was the attorney teaching that class died of cancer before we were seniors. He was replaced by someone who didn’t make students read and write briefs on 200 pages of legal cases every week.

Like Kingsield, this guy was a fan of the Socratic method, which meant you needed to be able to discuss any case. But the workload was so great that you had time to study and write briefs on only some of the cases, then hope you could win this game of roulette.

It wasn’t long before all three of us, and many others, had one “unprepared” on our records.

Then one week, a senior woman, who always sat with two other classmates, was standing and reading from her notes. She flipped a page. So did her friends. She flipped a page. So did her friends. The attorney-prof suggested that she and her friends seemed to have the same notes.

Each week they had been dividing the overwhelming workload and copying notes for each other. I had to admire this. Since age 8, my philosophy was: “Think, maybe we can dodge this work.”

Still, you were supposed to fly solo in this class.

The ringleader pleaded, using the prof’s name with Mr. in front of it often, that it was just too hard. It was a helluva performance.


Curtis got up.

“Do they get an incomplete?”

Caught off guard by this, the prof said they would not get an incomplete.

Curtis never sat down. “What about all the other incompletes up until now? If they don’t get an incomplete, why should anyone?”

I had learned the word “expunged” in class, and that expunged stamp was good as dry ink on my incomplete. Except the prof said all the previous incompletes would stand.

Not sure when WTF came into parlance, but WTF?

Curtis launched into an impassioned soliloquy about how people who had done their own work were being punished while three people basically cheated and got away with it. “This is supposed to be a class about justice,” he said. “Where’s the justice in that?”

The best thing to come out of taking that class as a sophomore was that I sold my $100 textbook filled with long-winded cases like Schmidley vs. the Republic of Botswana for 70 bucks. That was way more than I would get selling it back to that bookstore, where I would corral Vince two years later.

I nominated myself to complain to the department head about the lunacy of the prof’s decision. The department head deferred to the prof. The prof never bent.

I haven’t believed in justice since.

One thought on “JIM THIELMAN: My Only Law Class Was An Injustice”

  • Jim Brady May 30, 2020 at 5:36 pm

    I was inspired by Curtis’s impassioned plea. I’m a firm believer if something is worth doing it’s also probably also worth avoiding, Curtis seemed a man after my own heart, except I dropped out of the world of academia three months in,
    …so maybe we don’t have that much in common.

    I was also impressed the author could restrain a black male without killing them. People with far more training and wear a serve and protect badge struggle with that.


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