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Napolitano v. Trustees of Princeton University

Decided: June 2, 1982.


Dreier, J.s.c.


[186 NJSuper Page 578] Plaintiff instituted this action to compel defendant Princeton University to issue her Bachelor of Arts degree at its regular June commencement exercises, and for other incidental relief. Defendant maintained that as a result of a decision of its Committee on Discipline, which was confirmed by the university president, plaintiff's degree was to be withheld for the period of one year as penalty for her infraction of the university's regulations relating to academic fraud. The university contends that plaintiff plagiarized the bulk of a 12-page term paper, written in Spanish, and submitted in Spanish 341 (The Spanish American Novel) as a critical review of Cien anos de Soledad (100 years of Solitude) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Plaintiff, a student with a previously spotless record and a 3.7 cumulative grade point average, admitted the presence in her term paper of long passages quoted without attribution from Cien anos de Soledad: una interpretation, by Josefina Ludmer ("Ludmer"), but claimed

that this did not constitute plagiarism within the definition of that offense in the Princeton handbook, "Rights, Rules and Responsibilities" (1980).

By way of defense before the Committee on Discipline, the university president, Dr. Bowen, as well as this court, plaintiff explained that she had cited the Ludmer source five times in footnotes and once in the text, but had failed to use quotation marks or other textual or footnote citations for the bulk of the disputed material, determining the same to have been unnecessary. She noted that the Ludmer book had been placed on reserve for her by her Spanish professor, who had suggested she use that source as the basis for her paper; therefore, she knew that the professor was familiar with the volume in question. Plaintiff explained that she speaks and writes only halting Spanish, and had taken the course, not because she needed the credits for her degree (she was an English major), but merely to become more familiar with Spanish literature. She expected that her extensive quotations from Ludmer would immediately be recognized, since the grammatical structure and flowing style were clearly beyond her capability in written Spanish. Plaintiff admitted that she produced a poor paper and perhaps deserved to fail the particular assignment, but steadfastly maintained that she had no intent to deceive her professor -- she merely failed to follow the prescribed rules as to the use of quotation marks or other attribution references.

The student handbook recites that the usual penalty for academic fraud is "one year's suspension or required withdrawal from the University." This court has reviewed many of the disciplinary files (after requesting the deletion of the students' names to preserve anonymity), and has found that the actual penalties ranged from 20 days disciplinary probation (until graduation, for an offense that was adjudicated at the end of a student's senior year) to explusion (for the submission of a paper wholly plagiarized from an obscure source). Far from being uniform, the penalties appeared to be imposed on an ad hoc

basis, with suspension (or the withholding of the degree for seniors) being the exception rather than the rule.

The case was first presented to this court as an emergent matter because of the proximity of graduation, which was scheduled for June 8, 1982. Initially, the court requested that the attorneys go back to their clients and try to resolve the case without the necessity of adjudication, and with due recognition of the university's own practices and plaintiff's theretofore exemplary record. When the case was reported back as not subject to settlement, the court ordered accelerated depositions and prepared to process the matter on an expedited basis, scheduling the first formal hearing for the last week in May.

At this hearing the court considered the procedures followed by the university in dealing with plaintiff's alleged offense -- specifically, did the university comply with its own rules and regulations? At issue initially was the definition of plagiarism. The university had applied a definition which held as irrelevant the student's intent (or lack thereof) to deceive the reader. Plaintiff urged that the history of the handbook definition demonstrated that intent was not only relevant but central to the concept of plagiarism. In the 1978 edition of "Rights, Rules and Responsibilities" there had been an exception under "defenses" stating that the absence of intent was not a defense, and the word "deliberate" was not included in the basic definition of plagiarism. In the 1980 edition the "absence of intent" phraseology was deleted and a new definition of plagiarism was added:

PLAGIARISM. The deliberate use of any outside source without proper acknowledgement. "Outside source" means any work, published or unpublished, by any person other than the student. [Emphasis supplied].

The second procedural issue related to the ability of plaintiff to present both fact and character witnesses in her own behalf. She had been permitted to call any fact witness but the university had limited character witnesses to those from the Princeton University community whose names appeared in the Centrex directory. The handbook, however, provided that "the student has an opportunity to present his or her case and any witnesses

desired for his or her defense" (Emphasis supplied). Plaintiff had sought but was denied permission to present character witnesses who no longer were members of the Princeton ...

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