It’s not clear whether there will be any long-term political fallout from Melania Trump’s speech Monday night, in which she introduced herself to the nation with passages that closely mirrored a speech Michelle Obama first delivered eight years ago.
But high school teachers and college professors say it is almost certain that if Melania Trump were a student turning in a paper — rather than a prospective First Lady giving a convention speech — the consequences would be serious, ranging from an F on the assignment to expulsion from school.
Josh Davis, who teaches high school English and journalism in Beachwood, Ohio, said Trump’s speech is a classic example of the kind of plagiarism he sees among high school students.
“Sure, some words were changed, but the shell is the same,” Davis said. “It’s a pretty clear example of what I might see, where a student took another kid’s paper and changed half a dozen words and said ‘Oh, I paraphrased it, so it’s mine.’ And I say, ‘No, you plagiarized it.'”
Davis said a student who borrowed as much language as Trump would likely get a zero on the assignment — along with a lesson on why plagiarism is wrong. Sometimes, he said, such borrowing is a sign of a student who is struggling.
“Frequently, students that resort to that — not to excuse it — but frequently, in high school, it’s issues with ability,” he said. “Students who are in over their head are more likely to resort to something like that.”
Davis plans to vote for Hillary Clinton. But he said plagiarism is not a problem confined to the GOP, citing accusations of plagiarism that helped derail the 1988 presidential campaign of now-Vice President Joe Biden. “Even though I’m a Democrat, I haven’t had much respect for him because of that.”
Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has denied that Melania Trump’s speech included any plagiarism.
“There’s no cribbing of Michelle Obama’s speech. These were common words and values that she cares about, her family, things like that,” Manafort said on CNN’s “New Day” Tuesday morning. “She was speaking in front of 35 million people last night, she knew that, to think that she would be cribbing Michelle Obama’s words is crazy.”
But a specialist in ethics at Dartmouth College said Trump’s speech struck her as a clear-cut case of plagiarism.
If a college student had turned in a paper with the same amount of verbal overlap that Melania Trump’s speech contained, “that student would have been brought up on plagiarism charges, no doubt,” said Aine Donovan, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth.
Donovan said the sanctions students would face for such an offense vary from school to school. “They would be at minimum chastised, at worst separated from the college or the university,” she said.
Colleges sometimes make distinctions in judging plagiarism, finding certain cases to be slight verbal overlaps and others total cut-and-paste jobs.
“This would definitely be at minimum a yellow flag,” Donovan said of Trump’s speech, but she noted that college students are held to a different standard than politicians. “We’re trying to train students in principles of integrity and academic honesty.”
Donovan said she has taught at colleges with strong honor codes, including Dartmouth and the U.S. Naval Academy. “So many undergrads don’t understand the concept of honor. We take it very seriously,” she said. “Somebody could say, ‘Who cares about words? Who cares about plagiarism?’ Well, there’s a slippery slope involved.”
Perhaps no one is more familiar with that slippery slope than Jayson Blair, who was seen as a rising star in journalism before he resigned from the New York Times in 2003, admitting at the time to plagiarizing and fabricating facts and scenes in dozens of his articles, including in coverage of the Washington-area sniper case. The Times called Blair’s misdeeds “journalistic fraud” that tarnished the newspaper’s reputation.
Blair said he now speaks often to high school and college students about the lasting impact that his decision to plagiarize has had on his personal life and professional career.
“When you commit plagiarism on a national stage it really has the opportunity to significantly set back your life and your career,” Blair said. Copying someone else’s language makes it appear that “you’re willing to take from others without giving credit. It makes you seem as if you don’t have original ideas,” Blair said.
Several years ago, Blair said, a college journalism professor called him for advice about a student who had shown great promise but who was caught plagiarizing. Blair said that he spoke to the student and talked with him about the consequences of copying others’ work.
“My consequence was very public, and I’ve had the opportunity to rebuild, but I can never go into the profession I love the most,” Blair said. “I’m banned and barred for life from that field.”
Blair said that, in the end, the professor opted to fail the student rather than force his expulsion. Blair has since kept tabs on the student, and with Blair’s help, the student apparently learned his lesson: He still works in journalism today, Blair said.