Khanna: How the Paul plagiarism scandal is stupid
[This piece originally appeared at Politix.]
Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been accused of plagiarism for copying portions of Wikipedia pages – but this is no scandal. The news reports are that Rand has used a number of movie references in his speeches to convey a point, and in so doing, he summarizes the movies using language from Wikipedia.
Rand’s argument is original, his speech is original, but when he summarized the plots of Gattaca and Stand and Deliver, he did so by taking some sentences from Wikipedia.
This is not a scandal at all.
First, plagiarism is not a crime. So there are no legal issues involved here. Students are told not to plagiarize because it’s frowned upon. Passing someone else’s work off as your own is essentially a form of cheating in grade school and college.
Many schools and colleges have zero tolerance policies on this behavior. Students are cheating other students and themselves by pretending that they wrote something that they did not.
They are feigning competency in a subject they may not have mastered, thereby robbing themselves of an opportunity to learn from mistakes and learn how to really do the work. Their plagiarism may disrupt the grading curve for other students in the class. Most importantly, their plagiarism is a form of fraud – though not an illegal one – whereby the student is saying something is his own when it is not. By turning in the work, it is assumed that the work is entirely his or her own. To the extent that we want our schools to foster both education but also moral integrity, preventing and punishing real plagiarism is a compelling interest for the academic environment.
But it’s not illegal.
It is possible for plagiarism to cross into copyright infringement, but that is simply not the case here as Wikipedia entries allow for reproduction (and wikipedia itself doesn’t have copyright to begin with)- so this is completely off-point. However, even if Wikipedia entries were copyrighted, inserting a few lines into a speech would be fair use anyway. In summary: plagiarism is a big deal for school students, but it isn’t a crime.
While plagiarism is not a crime, many voters would be disappointed if someone performed a speech that was entirely plagiarized from someone else. Vice President Joe Biden is the quintessential example of this. His 1988 campaign was derailed in part by plagiarism problems. In a debate at the Iowa State Fair he repeated the words of British Labor Party Leader Neil Kinnock without attribution. In other speeches he had lifted portions from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. According to Slate:
From Kennedy, he took four long sentences in one case and two memorable sentences in another. (In one account, Biden said that Pat Caddell had inserted them in his speech without Biden’s knowledge; in another account, the failure to credit RFK was chalked up to the hasty cutting and pasting that went into the speech.) From Humphrey, the hot passage was a particularly affecting appeal for government to help the neediest. Yet another uncited borrowing came from John F. Kennedy.
The reality is that few, if any, Members of Congress write their own speeches, so it’s always written by someone else. But lifting portions of another politician’s speech, particularly flowery language and rhetoric, is very different than pulling in a movie description from Wikipedia.
The real question is: should a Senator’s staff be spending time trying to paraphrase a movie, or should they be able to take something that isn’t copyrighted and use it as a source? This is one of the lines that he used in describing Gattaca:
“In the not-too-distant future, eugenics is common, and DNA plays a primary role in determining your social class.”
It’s fairly obvious why a Senator would prefer not to say “according to Wikipedia.” If this use isn’t a crime, then why should he have to say that? No one thought the plot summary was Rand Paul’s original thought, as he was already giving attribution to the movie itself.
Unlike in the Biden example, Rand wasn’t taking the work of another person, he was taking the summary on a public website created and used by everyone. And none of the concerns from the academic environment are present here. Would we prefer for Members of Congress to have to personally watch the movie and summarize it themselves, or to be able to use a summary from Imdb or Wikipedia?
I have used Wikipedia myself quite a bit, it’s a terrific resource to find a quick summary of a book, movie and even legal cases. As a writer, there are different standards for plagiarism, so I have never lifted something directly from Wikipedia. But I for one have no problem with a member of Congress doing so in a speech with a plot summary of something like a book or a movie and inserting it into a speech, and then citing to the movie and book itself (as Senator Paul did).
However, if substantive policy arguments from the speech were taken from Wikipedia, then I would perceive that the Member hasn’t thought through the policy issue and is just reciting something written by someone else. At the same time, since Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, if they make an error on some important data point by citing Wikipedia then they should be criticized for their sloppiness in relying exclusively on this source.
The argument in this piece is essentially what Senator Rand Paul’s office said when asked for comment: “Only in Washington is something this trivial a source for liberal media angst.”
As someone who has seen Senator Rand Paul give speeches, I know at first hand his well-known frankness on controversial subjects. During his Senate campaign in 2010 I saw him tell the Home Owners Association in Kentucky that he was against the mortgage interest deduction.
For someone willing to put out original ideas on a regular basis, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt when he uses a movie plot.
I for one, would prefer Members of Congress to find their movie summaries online, and then spend their time thinking about real policy issues.
Derek Khanna (@DerekKhanna and Facebook.com/derekkhanna) is the maverick former Republican staffer and civil liberties advocate whose op-eds on cell phone unlocking went viral in January. He is now a Yale Law Fellow, columnist, and policy expert, and leader in the campaign to legalize unlocking your cell.