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Is Plagiarism an Easy Mistake?

By Tracy Schorn

July 20, 2016

Melania Trump and Michelle Obama

In Donald Trump's book The Art of the Deal, he (or his ghostwriter) wrote: "Good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells."

"Controversy sells" might be some cold comfort to Melania Trump this week after her speech on Monday at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was condemned as being cribbed in part from Michelle Obama's 2008 Democratic National Convention speech.

The dust is still settling on whether a speechwriter, rookie assistant, or Trump herself is responsible for the misappropriations. But is lifting portions of another's political speech an easy mistake to make? Or does it portent terrible things about one's character and motivations?

Mike Long teaches speechwriting at Georgetown University and says Trump's speech is a nonissue.

"The importance of this story is determined by whether you love or hate Donald Trump. Nothing else," he says.

History is replete with examples of speechwriting plagiarism. Vice President Joe Biden was exposed by The New York Times for lifting parts of his speeches from British politician Neil Kinnock and John F. Kennedy, among others. As a result, Biden dropped out of the 1988 presidential race. Senator Rand Paul allegedly plagiarized his speeches and parts of his book Government Bullies. In 2013, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow noted that a Paul speech was lifted from a Wikipedia page. Even Martin Luther King Jr. was known to borrow from other pastors' sermons as a way of delivering a consistent message during the Civil Rights Movement|.

In today's world, where so much other writing is so accessible online, is plagiarism an easy mistake to make?

Long believes that someone got careless, but cribbing is not uncommon. "Especially in a speech that is about mood over substance. Doesn't excuse it, but it happens."

"I tell speechwriters to always assume you are working without a net. You are responsible for every word you write," says Long, who also serves as director of writing for the Master of Professional Studies program in Public Relations and Corporate Communications at Georgetown.

But why would a woman need a speechwriter at all to praise her husband? On such a personal topic, couldn't a presumptive First Lady just write from the heart?

"Trying to express feelings in a speech is the hardest thing in the world," Long says. "That's when you want professional help."

Keri Douglas, a former White House speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, disagrees that Trump's speech is a nonissue.

"Plagiarism and copyright violations are serious offenses and have no place in business, journalism, or politics. To be clear, plagiarism is an intentional act," she says.

Douglas argues that just because it's not uncommon, doesn't make it okay.

"Plagiarism is a calculated risk. To me, the bigger question is, Who introduced the plagiarized text and why?"

What baffles Douglas most about the controversy is that "no one really was looking out for Melania Trump's interests, especially someone who is known to be intensely private. At stake is her authenticity. Does she really believe and act upon the words she spoke? Or, does she politely and beautifully do whatever she is told to do?"

"Authenticity, integrity, and substance are critical values in any person associated with a campaign for the president of the United States," Douglas says. 

Professor Michael Frisch, ethics counsel at Georgetown Law, concurs. In his opinion, Trump's speech is a clear case of plagiarism. He should know—he is responsible for busting students for plagiarism under Georgetown's Student Disciplinary Code.

"It's one thing to use a common turn of phrase, it's another to string word after word after word in direct sequence. The more overlap, the stronger the case for plagiarism," Frisch says.

"Context matters as well. They were both [presumptive] First Lady convention speeches."

That said, Frisch believes the matter is of little consequence because plagiarism is usually about damage to one's "reputation or academic standing."

"I don't think Melania Trump's scholarly reputation will be adversely affected," notes Frisch, wryly.

Besides which, the person who is in a position to press for damages is the person whose words were stolen—Michelle Obama.

"I imagine the First Lady has better things to do."