2018-01-18 05:10:25 UTC
The recent charges of plagiarism against both Democratic
presidential candidates demonstrate that there are no ground
rules about plagiarism in public speaking.
Politicians are not professional academics, and the strict
plagiarism rules that apply to professors do not make sense when
they're applied to orators. By the standards employed by some
campaigns and commentators, not only would Barack Obama and
Hillary Clinton be guilty of plagiarism, but so would Martin
Luther King, Jr.
Many of Dr. King's speeches and sermons, including "I Have A
Dream," were heavily dependent on others' work. Yet no one
seriously accuses King of plagiarism in "I Have A Dream." With
King's example in mind, I propose the following three rules for
evaluating charges of oratorical plagiarism:
Rule No. 1: If it's transformative, it's not plagiarism.
King's "Let freedom ring" run at the end of "I Have A Dream" was
based on a 1952 speech by Archibald Carey, a Chicago preacher
and political activist. Carey, like King, recited the lyrics of
America with an image of great bells of freedom pealing from
every state in the nation. But the similarity does not mean King
plagiarized. King added the repeated phrase "Let freedom ring,"
giving the material a call-and-response feel, and he changed
Carey's imagery to add assonance and rhythm. (For example,
Carey's "the Green Mountains and the White Mountains of Vermont
and New Hampshire" became "the prodigious hilltops of New
Hampshire," with the internal rhyme on the short "i" sound and
the balanced rhythms of "hilltops" and "Hampshire.")
Under this rule, Obama's "Yes we can" is not plagiarized from
César Chávez's famous rallying cry, "Sí se puede," because it is
transformative: The refrain changes in Obama's translation
(which is not the literal "Yes, it can be done" or "Yes, it is
possible"), and its context changes from the 1972 protest
against Arizona's farmworker labor laws to a more general call
to heal the nation.
Rule No. 2: If it's from a speechwriter or adviser, it's not
plagiarism. King heavily edited his aides' drafts for "I Have A
Dream," keeping what he liked and discarding or reworking
material he felt didn't suit him.
Some sentences ended up in the speech verbatim, however, such
as: "In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not
be guilty of wrongful deeds." But this is not plagiarism; King's
advisers wanted him to use their words.
Similarly, Hillary Clinton's advisers correctly argue President
Clinton's 1993 Inaugural Address did not plagiarize "force the
spring" from Father Tim Healy, the former president of
Georgetown University. The phrase came from a letter Healy wrote
to Bill Clinton that suggested language for the inaugural. And
Obama's lines from Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts are not,
as Hillary Clinton put it in last Thursday's University of Texas
debate, "change you can Xerox," an inappropriate use of
another's words: Patrick was advising Obama on his speeches and
encouraged Obama to use the lines.
Rule No. 3: If it's from a widely known source, such as the
Bible or the founding documents of America, it's not plagiarism.
King's speeches, like most civil rights oratory, drew on two
primary sources: The Bible and the founding documents of
America. King quotes the Declaration of Independence and the
Bible in "I Have A Dream," but he does not always attribute the
sources. He says "we will not be satisfied until justice rolls
down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," for
example, but does not acknowledge he is quoting God's words to
Israel in Amos 5:24.
Yet King did not plagiarize Amos; some sources are so embedded
in our national consciousness that it is appropriate to use
their words without attribution.
Hillary Clinton has occasionally used the phrase "send me" in
her speeches, and some have suggested that she lifted it from
her husband. Even if that is correct, it is not plagiarism
because it is based on Isaiah's response to God's call: "Here am
I. Send me." (Isaiah 6:8)
When I speak on King's oratory, many audiences, especially those
familiar with charges of plagiarism in his academic work, want
to know whether he plagiarized the phrase, "I Have A Dream." The
answer is no. Accounts of the phrase's origins differ; I think
it is based on biblical passages such as Joseph's line in
Genesis: "I have dreamed a dream." If so, King's use is
transformative (Rule No. 1) and biblical (Rule No. 3).
Some say King took the phrase from a 1962 sermon by Prathia
Hall, a young worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee. Even if that is true, King's use follows the rules.
Dr. Hall told me shortly before her death that King "did far
more with it than I could have done." (Rule No. 1).
These ground rules should give us a starting point for
considering the inevitable charges of oratorical plagiarism that
will occupy the campaigns between now and November.
The "I Have A Dream" speech borrowed freely from other sources,
but it was not plagiarized. Based on what we have seen so far,
neither are the speeches of Clinton and Obama.
Hansen is the author of "The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and
the Speech that Inspired a Nation" (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2003).
He is a partner in the Seattle office of Susman Godfrey LLP and
is raising money for Sen. Obama's presidential campaign. He can
be e-mailed at ***@drewhansen.com.