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Intent, Plagiarism, and Politics

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In criminal law, intent is a big deal.  The prosecutor must often prove not only what the defendant did but his state of mind while he was doing it.  Even though the harm to the victim may be the same, there is a fundamental moral difference between intentional and accidental harm.  "Even a dog distinguishes between stumbled over and being kicked," Justice Holmes famously said.  He had a knack for putting legal concepts into concrete terms everyone can understand.

How do you prove intent?  It's usually clear from the circumstances that an act is intentional.

Intent matters in politics as well.  Aaron Blake at the WaPo's political blog, The Fix, is incredulous of Montana Sen. John Walsh's claim of accidental plagiarism at the Army War College.

It also takes a pretty big suspension of disbelief to think that Walsh lifted those passages without ill intent. Proving someone's intent is always difficult, but believing that this was anything other than an attempt to cheat takes some logical leaps that are pretty hard to make.
We will be addressing intent in a Supreme Court case on threats in the coming term, Elonis v. United States.

Update:  Bill's later post asks whether plagiarism can be a crime.  Could be.  "Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct."  10 U.S.C. ยง 933; see also Parker v. Levy, 417 U.S. 733 (1974).  The military is different.  Funny the statute still says "gentleman."  We've had women officers for a long, long time.

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Elonis looks to be an interesting case.

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