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Plagiarism and politics

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Editorial: Nov. 17, 2013

ISSUE: Rand Paul’s lack of attribution
OUR VIEW: No, you can't be left alone

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s recent trouble started when MSNBC reported that he had lifted a sci-fi movie description from Wikipedia and used it in a speech. Then, additional accusations of plagiarism cropped up about other things he’s written, notably columns published in the Washington Times.

The outcomes of his plagiarism scandal have included the newspaper canceling a column written by Paul.

It’s been noted that Paul relies on a large staff to supply information. And it’s not difficult to understand how a staffer, especially an inexperienced one, might be too tempted to copy and paste. Technology has put so much information in the public domain and our fingertips that it might seem harmless. Still, technology also has enabled high school teachers, newspaper editors and everyone else to dump passages into a search engine and spot check for plagiarism with very little effort.

Understandable and acceptable are two different things. 

Once you speak the words, once you put them under your byline, you are responsible. And as a politician of near celebrity status, you can bet someone will call you out.

Paul lashed out at journalists and took a how-dare-you approach in his initial response, absurdly wishing he could challenge his critics to a duel and saying he could hang up politics and go back to being an eye doctor.

In a solid step toward getting over the uproar, the senator admitted mistakes were made and adopted a new staff policy on citation. Speech transcripts now include footnotes, for example.

But another remark by Paul indicated he wasn’t quite moving on. As he explained his new process to The New York Times, “What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we’re going to do them like college papers.”

Paul is considering a run for president in 2016. No one is going to leave him the hell alone.

He will face tougher critics than the likes of Rachel Maddow.

And it would not be a surprise if Paul faces vilification for things less relevant and less credible than plagiarism. It could be his clothes or a family member’s personal life. Ask Sarah Palin. It could be his faith or, yeah, even his birthplace. Ask Barack Obama.

Most elected officials will face some claims that need to be addressed and other claims that don’t warrant a response.

Plagiarism needs to be addressed. It should have been addressed without yearning for duels and to be left alone, though.

Voters very well could forgive plagiarism. The recent attack even will rally some supporters. But no one on the other side of the aisle – and his own side of the aisle — is going to let it be.

This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.