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A law student who graduated from N.C. Central University and gave a speech during the commencement ceremony is being accused of plagiarism . Although he had permission to use the words he quoted, he never gave credit to the original orator:

Preston Mitchum, 25, said in an interview that he found video of a speech made last year by Anthony Corvino, a student at Binghamton University in New York.

Mitchum copied the speech, delivering parts of it word for word at Friday’s ceremony for graduate and professional students at NCCU. In an interview Monday, he said he meant to credit Corvino in the speech. He didn’t.

On Monday, he apologized, saying, “I feel terrible and I know this is going to have a horrific backlash.”

A faculty disciplinary committee will review the matter and take appropriate action, said Raymond Pierce, NCCU’s law dean.

“Quite frankly, I’m disgusted,” Pierce said. “I spared no words in expressing to Mr. Mitchum how disgusted I am with this, and shocked. I mean, he is a student leader here at our law school. Plagiarism is a sad, yet unfortunate reality in higher education, we all know that. That is not to make any excuse but it is a sad and unfortunately reality. I would say, of all places, a school of law has no place for that.”

Yes, how dare Mr. Mitchum give a speech without crediting the writer. Does he think he’s a politician? Or an op-ed writer? Or a Christian book author? Or any number of other people who get away with the same practice every day?

At the risk of plagiarizing myself (some people think that is a real thing), let me repost what I said about a similar issue back in 2009 .

Why do we let people who “claim to be intellectual leaders” take credit for words and idea that they didn’t produce themselves?

In 2008 David McGrath wrote an excellent editorial for the Washington Post in which he questions the tolerance for ghostwriting by politicians:

Consider how we react to college students who buy term papers, to author Alex Haley plagiarizing in “Roots” or to Sen. Joe Biden cribbing a few lines from a British politician in 1987. All are judged to be acting improperly because they used others’ words without attribution. Yet those using the words of unacknowledged speechwriters get a free pass.

What’s the difference?

The fact that the writers give permission to the speakers to pretend it’s their own work does not make it okay. That’s exactly what happens with term-paper mills. Just ask Jacksonville State University President William Meehan, who in 2007 was publicly embarrassed and officially denounced after it was discovered that his weekly column in a local paper had routinely been ghostwritten by the college’s publicist.

Nor can second-party speechwriting be justified because it isn’t journalism or scholastic scholarship. Some speechwriters have likened their profession to screenwriting, penning dialogue to be spoken by others. But in the entertainment world, the audience buys seats to witness a fiction. They know the actors don’t write their own material, and authors are acknowledged in screen credits or theater programs.

When was the last time you saw or heard a writer credited at the end of a speech by John McCain or Barack Obama?

My only quibble with McGrath’s point is that speechwriting at the Presidential level is the one area where people are most aware that the words are not the person’s own. It’s the other areas of ghostwriting that need to be exposed.

When I first came to Washington, D.C. I was stunned to find that almost no high-profile figure wrote the op-eds, speeches, and other material that was being credited to them. When I expressed my amazement over this practice people assumed I was “shocked” in a Captain Renault in Casablanca kind of way; in fact, I was shocked in the “I can’t believe they are intentionally deceiving me” kind of way.

If you are intentionally using someone else’s words and claiming them as your own then you are deceiving your audience. It’s that simple. But in Washington, excuses are constantly made to rationalize this behavior. For example, the most common refrain is that “everybody already knows it goes on” and that “no one seems to mind.”

First, that simply isn’t true. The elderly lady in Des Moines who reads the op-ed by her local Congressman thinks that he actually wrote the op-ed . And why shouldn’t she? That is usually what is meant we we put someone’s name on the byline. If a newspaper reporter or columnist—whose work appears in print just a few inches over—would be fired for such deception, why is it deemed an acceptable practice?

Second, if “everybody knows” about it then what would be the harm of putting the ghostwriters name on the byline? Why not say that the article was written, for example, by “Rep. I.M. Plagiarizer and Joe Intern”? Call their bluff and you quickly realize that they know full-well that the “everybody knows” excuse is nothing more than a thin cover of self-justification.

What I find most troubling about this phenomena is the willingness of Christians to play the game too. It’s not just Christian politicians but leaders of Christian charities, policy organizations, and think tanks who use the words of others as their own every day. In the early 1980?s, Christianity Today wrote an editorial in which they noted that masking true authorship “is a canny but this-worldly approach to life, a playing of all the angles, a cunning attempt to skirt the edge of moral forthrightness.” I completely agree and think its time for these leaders to stop deceiving their constituents.

A few years ago I met the husband of a young Christian writer. When he told me that he worked full-time as her editor I was surprised. I was aware of only one book that she had written and asked how they were able to make a living. While she had written only one book under her own name, he told me, she had written dozens for Christians leaders and ministers under their name. He couldn’t say who because the agreement he had with the publishers was that the actual writer’s name (his wife) was never mentioned in the books. The man appeared to be genuine, humble, devout Christian and yet he saw no problem at all with deceiving the public.

When we see their name on a byline we should ask every leader in America—especially every Christian leader—if they actually wrote the article or book. Email their staff and ask them to provide an answer. Quite a few of them do write their own material and should be praised for their efforts. But for those who do not—and almost all will answer truthfully—we must also follow-up by letting them know that we expect the person who wrote the material to be given credit in a way that is clear and obvious. Anything less is dishonest—and must not be tolerated.

A small, but not insignificant, step toward changing the culture of deception can be taken by asking a simply question: Did you write it yourself?


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