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A lawsuit was filed last week in U.S. District Court aimed at disallowing companies from distributing term papers online. In the suit--believed to be the first of its type in the nation--Boston University alleges that online term paper distributors violate federal law by engaging in mail and wire fraud, and violate a state law prohibiting the sale of term papers and other research materials. A representative of one of the companies named in the suit, speaking to The Crimson on grounds of anonymity, claims in its defense that B.U. is attempting to abridge its First Amendment rights by censoring what it can and cannot put on its Web site.
At issue is the sale of papers ostensibly labeled as "research only," carrying explicit warnings that the material is not to be submitted as one's own work. One company offers to research any topic, and in one to two weeks, produce a neatly and professionally printed paper "written by college professors," mailed, e-mailed or faxed to the student. In exchange, the student must prepay in full, with rates starting at $5 a page for high school reports.
The company, Mail It Tutoring & Term Paper Helpline of Brooklyn, N.Y., also posts the following note on its Web site: "There is no guarantee of any grade since these papers are only to be used for research purposes only [sic]. You will be using the report only as reference material. They are not to be handed into your school or into your professor [sic] as your own work. If you have any intention of doing this, please do not call us."
Having made such warnings, the companies assert that research-on-demand is a legitimate educational aid, not unlike Cliffs Notes. But the line between the two is clearly not so fine. In their investigation, B.U. officials posed as students needing a paper to submit for an English class. The clear intent to plagiarize did not stand in the way of the transaction. In some cases papers were even provided to students with a cover page noting the student's name, the professor's name and the date. If only Cliffs Notes were so helpful!
Companies are clearly being duplicitous in posting warnings they expect no one to follow. If the material is for research only, why is the student supplied not with notes but with a polished, fully-edited final product? Such contradictions abound because the business of selling term papers and research is sleazy. Buyers and sellers both undermine the educational system, allowing some students to buy their diplomas and cheapening the work produced by everyone else.
The companies are wise to raise questions about free speech, since there is an argument to be made that banning the sale of such papers sets a dangerous precedent. But presumably the district court will not be misled. The ability of businesses to capitalize on plagiarism has nothing to do with individual expression, and as such has no place under the banner of free speech. Term paper companies point out that a large portion of their business consists not of students but of other businesses seeking to have research done for them. If this is the case, they ought not be so worried about losing that portion of their market composed of student cheaters.
Twenty-five years ago, B.U. was successful in winning an injunction against term paper mills, and then in having such sales outlawed by the Massachusetts legislature. Hopefully, the federal courts will now allow this restriction to carry over into cyberspace. The rightful case of 'Net policy will preserve the integrity of work in Massachusetts high schools and colleges from the opportunistic entrepreneurs using the Internet to evade a decent law.
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