Closed doors, closed mouths in plagiarism incidents

BY JON LAMBERSON

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Reading the Adviser this month may lead Law School students to believe that plagiarism is on the rise. The February 6 issue, for example, cryptically referred to two LL.M. students who had been suspended for one semester for plagiarism. The February 21 issue was even more vague, stating that “a student was suspended for one year for plagiarism on a paper written in fulfillment of a course requirement.”

What the Adviser didn’t say was that the two LL.M. students were actually suspended almost a year ago. This led to frustration and apprehension among many current LL.M.s, as they tried to figure out who had been suspended and what they had done wrong.

The HLS Graduate Program Handbook states that, “In the United States rules relating to plagiarism are very strict, and may not have exact counterparts in some other countries.” It also warns, “Several Graduate Program students have been cited for plagiarism in recent years.”

However, after the incidents of plagiarism that occurred last year, the Graduate Program decided to spend time during orientation this year making sure international students were well aware of what constitutes plagiarism.

This is why it was particularly confusing to many in the program when the Adviser article appear this month. Several LL.M. students said they were shocked that, after having had the plagiarism guidelines explained to them, two students had still somehow violated the rules.

It didn’t help that students could not obtain any information from the notices on what acts of plagiarism the students had been accused of. The Adviser mentioned “several strong mitigating circumstances” in one case, yet did not elaborate on what those mitigating circumstances were.

What is most interesting about the notices in the Adviser is the balancing act they try to maintain between public disclosure and personal privacy.

The procedures of the administrative Board state that proceedings will normally be private, but at the student’s option the hearing can be open to the public. Dean of Students Suzanne Richardson confirmed that none of the students involved in disciplinary cases this year requested an open hearing.

One-L Board representative Andrew Friedberg explained that privacy is an important part of Board proceedings. “When [students] choose to keep things private it is our duty to respect that choice,” he said.

Prof. Christine Desan, the Administrative Board chairperson, also echoed this sentiment. “Our disclosure is, indeed, very limited,” she said, “because student privacy protections do continue, even if a student has acted in a way that we decide merits a sanction.”

Some of the Board’s procedures clearly mirror rules of American jurisprudence. For example, students may appear with a legal counsel or lay advisor. Richardson said that in her experience most, if not all, students exercised their right to legal counsel. A record of the hearing is kept, and the student has a right to examine all witnesses.

Other board procedures, though, seem more arbitrary. Formal rules of evidence do not apply, for example. “The Administrative Board… may consider any evidence which it deems to be relevant and trustworthy,” Board materials state. The Board also does not recognize a privilege of non-cooperation. Any reasonable inferences” may be drawn if a student chooses not to speak. There is also no right to appeal, except in cases of expulsion. Finally, the Board reserves the right to formulate and follow “an appropriate ad hoc procedure” should novel situations of law or fact arise.

No Board members, nor Richardson, were willing to comment on exactly what the suspended LL.M. students had done to invoke sanctions.

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