BY HUGO TORRES
The recent discovery of improperly credited passages in Professor Laurence Tribe’s book, God Save This Honorable Court, came about because of an unidentified law professor who tipped off the Weekly Standard. This unidentified professor apparently was prompted to take such action after becoming upset over comments made by Tribe that were posted on the weblog of Dean Lawrence Velvel of the Massachusetts School of Law, a weblog which has now found itself as a mediator in the debate over plagiarism in the legal profession.
When charges of plagiarism first arose regarding HLS professor Charles Ogletree, Tribe expressed sympathy for his colleague in comments to the Boston Globe. Dean Velvel questioned Tribe’s comments on his weblog, which resulted in Tribe corresponding with Velvel and acknowledging that the uncredited appropriation of the work of others was a significant problem.
In comments published on Velvel’s weblog, Tribe acknowledge a “larger problem” of “writers, political office-seekers, judges and other high government officials passing off the work of others as their ownÉ” Tribe also expressed a desire that such discussion “could be separated, in the interest of basic human kindness and simple decency as well as that of accuracy, from public excoriation of individuals and episodes about which your knowledge is necessarily limited.”
These comments, in turn, apparently caused an unidentified professor to send a note to the Weekly Standard recommending that a closer look be taken at Tribe’s book. Joseph Bottum, the Weekly Standard editor who wrote the column exposing Tribe’s plagiarism, explained to Dean Velvel the motivation behind the unknown professor. “Tribe’s expressions of sympathy for Goodwin and Ogletree did not prompt the tip,” wrote Bottum. “But his Olympian declaration of a general problem did.”
“[T]here is a legitimate disgust, I think, when people opine grandly on the general problem of which they are specifically (and secretly) guilty,” wrote Bottum.
Dean Velvel’s weblog has become a focal point of sorts over the recent plagiarism scandals. Tribe is not the only distinguished legal scholar who has corresponded with Velvel. HLS Professor Alan Dershowitz became the subject of Dean Velvel’s scrutiny over comments made to the media. Seizing upon Dershowitz’s public mention of “cultural differences” between the legal profession (where judges routinely take the work of lawyers and clerks in writing their opinions) and the rest of academia, Dean Velvel expressed disbelief that Dershowitz would make such a distinction the basis for an excuse.
Dershowitz responded to Velvel, acknowledging that he stood by his comment of cultural differences but explaining that it was meant to serve as an observation on how accidental plagiarism may occur, not a defense of such actions. “There is never under any circumstances any justification for plagiarism and nothing I said was intended to serve as a justification,” wrote Dershowitz. Dershowitz also suggested the establishment of a committee to set out clear guidelines for the use of research assistants by law professors.
Judge Richard Posner also weighed in on the matter, expressing dismay to Velvel about the status of legal writing. “The problem is that we no longer have a culture of writing. Writing is now a specialty,” wrote Posner. “I am one of the dinosaurs who still does my own opinion writing,” wrote Posner. “But let’s face it: we’re on the road to extinction.”
Not everything written on Velvel’s site has been critical of Tribe. “One should applaud the immediate assumption of responsibility,” wrote Velvel, praising Tribe for quickly admitting to his mistake.
Even Velvel has been surprised by all the attention that has resulted. In comments to the Globe, Dean Velvel said he wanted “every single piece of dishonesty in society [to be] laid bare,” but denied having an agenda. “I didn’t set out to have a role. It sort of just happened,” he said.