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Then Again, Maybe Wikipedia IS a Proper Legal Authority

Surprise, surprise, Courts seem to be split on the issue of whether or not Wikipedia is a proper legal source. In the previous post, people were discussing this link on Wikipedia:

Which is a listing of holdings from Courts that have cited Wikipedia in various countries, including the United States.

So I started digging through them and found what seems to be the most thorough treatment of Wikipedia as a proper legal source to date. From S.D.N.Y. Alfa Co. v. OAO Alfa Bank  The relevant discussion is on pages 7 to 12, Reliability of Internet Sources. It’s much too long to reproduce in full, but here is an excerpt:

To begin with, it is not clear that internet sources ingeneral, or the ones cited by Mr. Muravnik in particular, areinherently unreliable. Countless contemporary judicial opinionscite internet sources, and many specifically cite Wikipedia…(long list of cases citing Wikipedia)

While citing a website in a judicial opinion is not analytically identical to basing an expert opinion on such a source (which, as explained below, is not what Mr. Muravnik in fact does), the frequent citation of Wikipedia at least suggests that many courtsdo not consider it to be inherently unreliable. In fact, a recentand highly-publicized analysis in the magazine Nature found thatthe error rate of Wikipedia entries was not significantly greater than in those of the Encyclopaedia Britannica…

Thus, despite reasonable concerns about the ability of anonymous users to alter Wikipedia entries, the information provided there is not so inherently unreliable as to render inadmissible any opinion that references it…

So is Wikipedia a proper legal source? Like most legal questions – it depends. At this point, personally, I would not be inclined to reference Wikipedia in any document I was going to file with the court. I’d rather let someone else take point on the issue and find out whether or not it is a reliable source from on high. YMMV.

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.

4 comments

  1. Unfortunately “it depends” is a concept beyond most people, including lawyers.

    Citing Wikipedia for the definition of gross negligence or the holding in a case? Uh…no. You want the actual text of a statute or court opinion.

    But, there are plenty of times it could be useful, such as to show how a term is commonly used. If I contract with you to deliver 500 widgets to Grand Central Station, and you believe I mean the subway/train station, but I deliver them to the nearby post office, you could probably cite Wikipedia as evidence that when people say Grand Central Station, they mean the transportation hub (though it’s technically named Grand Central Terminal, Grand Central Station is in fact a post office).

    The fact that anyone can edit it actually makes it more reliable than another source, as it is more likely to reflect how Grand Central is actually used.

    You can also cite Wikipedia for it’s meta-information. You’re not citing it for the truth of its articles, but for some other reason.

    Wikipedia would also be useful in showing damages in a slander or libel case. Having a defamatory remark reproduced on Wikipedia is certainly more damaging than shouting it on the street one time.

    Defeating a trade secret claim might also be useful if you can find that secret published on a Wikipedia article. Probably also useful in trademark disputes if you want to argue that a term is generic.

    You could defeat an insider trading charge if you could show that the information you based a trade on was already published on Wikipedia.

    Lots of other uses, I’m sure. You just don’t use it as legal authority, and you’d have to be an idiot even consider that. Unfortunately, a lot of lawyers are idiots.

  2. One of the shortcomings of wikipedia is the fact that it is not subject to peer review. Then again, it is subject to content changes. I do not think I will ever cite wikipedia in a legal brief. Wikipedia is useful but not authoritative, and I believe legal briefs are meant to cite authorities to support issues raised. Most of the time also, I think the articles take up a generic approach.

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