Researching a Rumor: An Exercise for Students in Proving a Negative

by Nicole Downing

CC License

I was having dinner with some friends from law school, when one of them complained about how a local restaurant charged for refills. She was furious about it! We live in the South – you should be able to have as much sweet tea or coke as you want (with the option of a to-go cup as you leave). Another friend commented that it was the law in North Carolina to require free refills. We looked at her in surprise, and she clarified that it was just something she always heard people say.

I was intrigued enough to investigate it and quickly realized that this is a common rumor in multiple states. While doing some initial research, I thought about how many different sources need to be searched to ensure there isn’t a law on the matter and how frustrating it is when you are trying to prove that a law doesn’t exist.

I decided to have my students put this rumor to the test. I walked into class and gave my students their research prompt: In North Carolina, is there law requiring restaurants to provide free refills on soft drinks?

We began by addressing our gut feeling on the answer. We agreed that no, there probably wasn’t a law that required this. But how do we prove that the law doesn’t exist? And how do we state our conclusion with confidence?

We proceeded step-by-step through the research method we had spent the semester studying, beginning by conducting a preliminary analysis together as a class. We identified our jurisdiction, selected key terms, and brainstormed secondary sources. The best part of this was identifying potential authorities because we didn’t know exactly where we would find the law. We ended up with a list that included most of the sources of primary law we had discussed throughout the semester, including statutes, regulations, local ordinances, and case law.

Everyone began by individually searching the secondary sources we had brainstormed. Together, we discussed where we had searched, how we had searched, and what we had found. We repeated this process of researching individually then sharing our results for statutes, regulations, ordinances, and cases.

At the end of the class period, we hadn’t found any law on soft drink refills or any helpful guidance through our searches. I asked them the following question: Can we conclude that there is not a law requiring restaurants to provide free refills on soft drinks in North Carolina? I received 15 hesitant looks as an answer. I stressed that we just looked through numerous sources of law, and we repeatedly received the same lack of results. This led to a class discussion on knowing when to stop your research.

I think this exercise worked out nicely at the end of the semester for several reasons. It was a review of the steps in the research process, with targeted finding skills mixed in. It forced students to face one of the most frustrating situations for a researcher – not finding an answer. However, it was in the context of proving a negative, which is a situation where you don’t expect to find anything. The research exercise led to a final conversation on having confidence in your research skills, which felt like a positive note to end on!

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This entry was posted in Legal Research, Legal Research Instruction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Researching a Rumor: An Exercise for Students in Proving a Negative

  1. emilydonnellan says:

    I love this idea!! This sounds like such a fun exercise, thanks for sharing it with us.

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