Keith Lee

A couple days ago on Twitter, I noticed Judge Stephen Dillard having a conversation with a few people about the validity of using Wikipedia as a reliable legal authority. I mentioned that I wrote about the topic back in 2011. But given the continued growth and reliance of the general public upon Wikipedia, I decided it was probably worth looking at again.

Wikipedia actually has a page devoted to documents used in legal proceedings that have cited Wikipedia as a source. One particular case provides an in-depth discussion of whether or not the use of Wikipedia is “reliable,” interestingly enough….

Alfa Corp. v. OAO Alfa Bank, 475 F. Supp. 2d 357 (S.D.N.Y. 2007), was a trademark infringement case in which one party sought to have the opposing counsel’s expert witnesses testimony excluded due, in part, because a witness relied on Wikipedia in developing their testimony. The opinion of the court devoted a discussion to the “Reliability of Internet Sources.” An excerpt:

To begin with, it is not clear that internet sources in general, or the ones cited by Mr. Muravnik in particular, are inherently unreliable. Countless contemporary judicial opinions cite 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 courts do not consider it to be inherently unreliable. In fact, a recent and highly-publicized analysis in the magazine Nature found that the error rate of Wikipedia entries was not significantly greater than in those of the Encyclopedia 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…

Which seems reasonable to me. But not so much for the Fourth Circuit and the Fifth Circuit, which seem to frown on citing Wikipedia. In United States v. Lawson, 677 F.3d 629 (4th Cir. 2012), the court expressed concerns about Wikipedia’s reliability:

[W]e are not the first federal court to be troubled by Wikipedia’s lack of reliability. See Bing Shun Li v. Holder, 400 Fed. Appx. 854, 857–58 (5th Cir.2010) (expressing “disapproval of the [immigration judge's] reliance on Wikipedia and [warning] against any improper reliance on it or similarly unreliable internet sources in the future”); Badasa v. Mukasey, 540 F.3d 909, 910–11 (8th Cir.2008) (criticizing immigration judge’s use of Wikipedia and observing that an entry “could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized”); Crispin v. Christian Audigier, Inc., 717 F.Supp.2d 965, 977 (C.D.Cal.2010) (criticizing parties’ reliance on Wikipedia); Kole v. Astrue, No. CV 08–0411, 2010 WL 1338092, at *7 n. 3 (D.Idaho Mar. 31, 2010) (admonishing counsel from using Wikipedia as an authority, observing that “Wikipedia is not a reliable source at this level of discourse”); Baldanzi v. WFC Holdings Corp., No. 07–CIV–9551, 2010 WL 125999, at *3 n. 1 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 13, 2010) (observing that Wikipedia “touts its own unreliability”); Campbell ex rel. Campbell v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs., 69 Fed.Cl. 775, 781 (Fed.Cl.2006) (observing dangers inherent in relying on Wikipedia entry).

I decided to log in to Westlaw real quick to see what were the most recent opinions that cited Wikipedia as an authority per Circuit. They are as follows:

11th Circuit

Walinbay S.A. v. Fresh Results, LLC United States District Court, S.D. Florida. February 19, 2014

Relying on Wikipedia for definition and description of “drayage.”

10th Circuit

S.E.C. v. Goldstone United States District Court, D. New Mexico. March 31, 2014 2014 WL 1285510

Relying on Wikipedia for definition and description of “Superjumbo” and “jumbo,” in reference to ARM securities.

9th Circuit

In re Google Referrer Header Privacy Litigation United States District Court, N.D. California., San Jose Division March 26, 2014 2014 WL 1266091

Relying on Wikipedia for definition and description of “HTTP referer.”

8th Circuit

Cumella v. Colvin United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Western Division. March 26, 2013 936 F. Supp. 2d 1120

Relying on Wikipedia for definition and description of “nuchal ligament,” “Tinel sign,” “Phalen’s maneuver,” and more.

7th Circuit

Conrad v. AM Community Credit Union United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit. April 14, 2014  2014 WL 1408635

Relying on Wikipedia for definition and description of “dance notation.”

6th Circuit

Cantrell v. Owners Ins. Co. United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, Pikeville. March 21, 2014 2014 WL 1168807

Relying on Wikipedia for definition and description of “Quantum Superposition.” (Aside: Judge Thapar is funny. This was the best opinion; you should go read it.)

5th Circuit

Francis v. GRT Utilicorp, Inc. United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division. February 25, 2013 2013 WL 749799

Relying on Wikipedia for definition and description of  “original equipment manufacturer.”

4th Circuit

Capital Concepts, Inc. v. Mountain Corp. United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division. March 29, 2013 936 F. Supp. 2d 661

Relying on Wikipedia for definition and description of “ipse dixit.”

3rd Circuit

Robocast, Inc. v. Apple Inc. United States District Court, D. Delaware. January 28, 2014 2014 WL 334183

Relying on Wikipedia for definition and description of “Garbage in, garbage out.”

2nd Circuit

U.S. v. Santiago United States District Court, S.D. New York. December 19, 2013  2013 WL 6690303

Relying on Wikipedia for the factual statement that “NCIS holds the distinction of being the most-watched network television program in the United States for ten consecutive years.”

1st Circuit

U.S. v. O’Brien United States District Court, D. Massachusetts. February 06, 2014 Slip Copy 2014 WL 535663

Relying on Wikipedia for the factual statement that Judge Saylor (who wrote said opinion) was a partner at Goodwin Procter before becoming a federal judge.

* * *

So despite the rulings from the Fourth Circuit in 2012 and the Fifth Circuit in 2010, district judges in those circuits were still merrily citing Wikipedia in 2013. And seven of the circuits had judges relying on Wikipedia as authority in the past five months.

So why the reliance on Wikipedia?

Paper is dead. Case reporters are gone. All work is done on computers. There is Westlaw, there is Lexis. Almost all legal research is done via the internet. But legal research is limited to just that — legal. You can’t find the definition for “quantum superposition” on Westlaw. So judges and clerks do what everyone else does when they need to know the answer to something.

They Google it.

Go ahead and Google any of the above phrases and see what is the first thing that comes up. It’s Wikipedia every time. Wikipedia is the default answer. Google says Wikipedia provides the correct answer and people rely on Google. Maybe the definition or information provided on Wikipedia is not 100 percent the most accurate way to define something. Maybe it could be said a bit better or with a bit more clarity.

But given high caseloads and little time, I imagine that for many judges Wikipedia is largely “good enough” — just like it is for everyone else.


Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at keith.lee@hamerlawgroup.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.


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