Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent visit to Northern Kentucky University to discuss her controversial book, “Nickel and Dimed,” had some students demonstrating in front of the University Center, protesting her views with signs saying, “Oppose Socialism” and “Capitalism Works.”
One of the protesters, Trey Orndorff, not only stood on the plaza in protest, he submitted a letter to the editor of The Northerner, which was published Sept. 24. In it, Orndorff asserted that Ehrenreich’s critics “rightly describe her work as liberal propaganda infused with religious bigotry.”
As it turns out, those words have been written before – but not by Orndorff.
It was discovered after publication that those words, along with approximately 60 percent of the column length submitted in Orndorff’s name, appear exactly as published in an article by Michael Tremoglie on Front Page Magazine.com, July 22, 2003.
Orndorff, recently appointed vice president of academic and student affairs for the Student Government Association, said he didn’t realize that so much of the letter he submitted was copied “word-for-word.”
“My dad and I did it (the letter) jointly,” Orndorff said. “I didn’t realize I was copying anybody’s exact words. See, I thought he was giving me summaries.”
Orndorff’s father, Harold Orndorff, is the campus minister for the NKU Christian Student Fellowship. The elder Orndorff, who is not a paid employee of the university, said the letter was his son’s “but we collaborated on it.”
“I helped him create it,” he said.
Trey Orndorff said his contribution to the letter was “very minimal.” However, he and his father decided it would be more appropriate for him to sign his name to the letter because he is a student and because he attended the protest.
“His idea was, you know, I’ll do most the work here, if you just slap your name on this,” Trey Orndorff said. “It will look better that way.”
The younger Orndorff said they looked to several news sources including the Christian News Service and Townhall.com in order to get background for the editorial.
“I thought it would be good to gauge how it’s been at other universities, and what other people have to say about her,” he said. “That was the hope.”
“Now, looking at these two documents…I can see that this is incorrect,” Trey Orndorff said. “You have to give credit where credit is due. I would never have done it like this if I would have known it was this close.”
Harold Orndorff did not agree that using Tremoglie’s words verbatim was cause for concern.
He said he compiled the information for the article for his son and that he used the article from Front Page Magazine.com to do it.
“I collect articles,” he said. “I thought it (Tremoglie’s article) was pretty good stuff so we did use some of it.”
The elder Orndorff said the material was not copyrighted and is, therefore, public domain.
“(It) was not copyrighted. You can adopt it as your own opinion,” he said.
Media law experts disagree. Adam Goldstein, new media legal fellow for the Student Press Law Center, said, “things are copyrighted as soon as they’re written.”
He said an author has to say their work is public domain or be dead at least 50 years in order for the work to not be protected under copyright law.
“It’s really hard for something to not be copyrighted,” Goldstein said.
Harold Orndorff said The Northerner “should leave students alone who express their opinion” and that it was inappropriate for editors to check on the authenticity of his son’s letter. He said there are “no standards whatsoever” regarding attributing sources of information in letters to the editor.
“Technically, you can’t plagiarize a letter to the editor,” Harold Orndorff said. “It’s not an article, not an academic piece.”
Dan Hassert, editorial page editor for The Kentucky Post, said issues regarding plagiarism are a little more complicated than standard articles, but using someone else’s words and passing them off as your own is considered plagiarism – even in letters to the editor.
“The context should be clear,” Hassert said. “The standards are there. They’re just a little less formal.”
“You hope that somebody has an original opinion,” he said.
*Correction: Adam Goldstein was paraphrased incorrectly, what he said was “He said an author has to say their work is public domain or be dead an average of 50 years in order for the work to not be protected under copyright law.”