Wikipedia In Court: The How & The When

The logo of Wikipedia.
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I haven’t picked on Wikipedia in a while, so when I got the Legal Writing Institute email this morning with a link to the article entitled Wikipedia in Court: When and How Citing Wikipedia and Other Consensus Websites is Appropriate, I figured it was time for another go-around with the authority-by-crowd-compromise site. Authors Hannah Murray and Jason Miller undertake to define a process to determine when citing to Wikipedia is o.k., despite its faults, failings and questionable authority. The authors premise their article with an explanation of the difference between citing sources like Wikipedia or, egad, the Urban Dictionary for the meaning of slang terms and relying on such sources for the “contours of the xyphoid process.” In short, the authors believe that appropriate citation of Wikipedia is driven by the legal context in which the citation will be used and the structural limitations of Wikipedia in that same context. I say there is no such thing as appropriate citation to Wikipedia in the context of a legal brief or judicial opinion.

One of the issues is that Wikipedia articles are open to constant revision from any source. The authors believe that some of this concern can be addressed by qualifying the citation by date and time, and explain how to find the time-stamp for the particular page. The authors also believe that Wikipedia is a fine resource for determining the community or consensus perspective on a non-legal concept. Thus, the more technical and formalistic a concept, the less appropriate it is to cite Wikipedia.

While I am right there with the authors on their caution against citing the big Wiki for technical concept, scientific or biographical data, I am still not convinced it is a reasonable source for crowd consensus on the meaning of common phrases such as “business day.” Take, for example, the fact that women are highly underrepresented on Wikipedia as editors and contributors and you are missing half of the population that might have an opinion on what a business day is. The field is further narrowed when you consider that Wikipedia contributors are a fairly small (and shrinking) subset of on-line denizens – those that would even consider taking the time to edit a group Wiki. This small subset cannot and should not be considered to be even a remote facsimile of a public “consensus” on any subject, let alone one that might drive the opinion of a court.

The authors opine that the Wikipedia entry is likely more reliable when it is “common wisdom [that] is more likely to be correct.” If so, then why cite Wikipedia at all? Why wouldn’t it be the subject of judicial notice at that point? I say, back away from the Wikipedia and look to the underlying sources. I challenge their conclusion that Wikipedia is a “great source” in this context – go ahead and use it to look up information to settle a quick argument at the bar or to pull links or lists of other resources that might actually be curated and reliable. But don’t even think about going there to support something as important as a legal decision.

For what it is worth, and to sit on the other side of the fence for a moment, any citation to Wikipedia that relies solely on date and time is insufficient – I would hope that anyone citing the source as authority would also consider attaching a copy of the actual language on the page at the time of citation. Consider using a handy Internet Explorer or Firefox tool like iCyte, which freezes a page in time for later review. Then, be prepared to defend your use of this highly questionable resource.

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5 comments on “Wikipedia In Court: The How & The When

  1. I believe Wikipedia serves the greater interests of all in making available information that would otherwise NOT be in the public domain. I have posted on Wikipedia to correct misinformation using the only authorities I could find, and have been gratified that my corrections still stand. The misrepresentations, however, were in the article for a long time.

    So often, the “authorities” tell only one side of the subject matter and favor the “special interests” who gain from a special view of the subject matter.

    Wikipedia provides an opportunity to look for truth about a subject matter because it is not confined to professionals and does permit average citizens to look for authorities to substantiate their view of the subject matter.

  2. Points well taken, Carol. The main criticism I levy against Wikipedia in my post (and in general) is that it really has no place in a court of law or in a legal brief. As the authors state in the linked article, the value of Wikipedia in this particular context diminishes as the point to be supported gets more technical and moves further “out of the public realm.” For more general, crowd-sourced information, it seems that there are other better resources available to lawyers and courts for citation purposes.

    I am heartened by the facts that (a) you are a woman contributor and (b) you have taken the time to correct misinformation on the site. These two facts give me greater confidence in the site. But again, for legal citation purposes, the fact that there is misinformation on the site is very very troubling. And in the broader sense, I still question whether the universe of Wikipedia contributors is a good representative sample of “public” opinion on any subject.

    Just this evening I found myself on Wikipedia in the course of searching for topographical information. I definitely see value in Wikipedia in certain circumstances. Just not in the particular circumstance discussed in the post.

    Cheer,

    Martha

  3. I love wikipedia and think it is a great resource. I cannot see ever citing to it in any of my cases, but I guess stranger things have happened. I would start with my basic rule in line with your for sure!

    Tim

  4. I can’t believe the paper called Urban Dictionary “accurate”. There are far better slang dictionaries online.

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