October 19, 2017 Practice Points

Wondering Whether to Cite Wikipedia?

By Alexis Kellert

As lawyers, whether in the context of a motion submitted to the court or a letter sent to opposing counsel, we place a premium on persuasive writing. Our writing is most persuasive when we are able to cite legal opinions or other authorities to support well-crafted arguments. Earlier generations of lawyers were constrained in this respect by the availability of sources. By contrast, the advent of online legal research services ushered in a broader set of resources for lawyers to draw on, including unpublished decisions, secondary sources, obscure law review articles and Wikipedia. Indeed, a new trend is developing: Internet sources are bolstering legal writing drafted by judges and lawyers alike. A hierarchy of citations from precedential to persuasive already exists. But, as information becomes more readily available, the legal community must question whether bright-line rules regarding Internet citations are even tenable.

Importantly, where a court sanctions—or rejects—a particular source as providing useful support, lawyers practicing in that jurisdiction ought to know. On this topic, one should consider a recent decision from the Supreme Court of Texas that addressed the value of relying, specifically, on Wikipedia in D Mag. Partners, L.P. v Rosenthal, --- S.W.3d ----, 2017 WL 1041234, at **4-5, 60 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 617 (Tex. Mar. 17, 2017).

In D Mag. Partners, L.P. v Rosenthal, the subject of a magazine article brought an action against the magazine for defamation and for violations of Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act and Identity Theft Enforcement and Protection Act after the magazine had published an article accusing her of welfare fraud and describing her throughout the article as a “welfare queen.” Id. To determine whether a publication is capable of a defamatory meaning, the court examines its “gist.” Id. at *4. Critically, the court of appeals began its “gist analysis” with a discussion of the article’s title—“the park cities welfare queen”—and cited Wikipedia as its primary source for a definition of the term “welfare queen.” Id. The magazine and several amici challenged the court’s reliance on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia describes itself as an “online open-content collaborative encyclopedia.” Id.; see also Wikipedia: General Disclaimer, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:General_disclaimer (last visited Sept. 5, 2017). The open-content collaboration means that anyone can, at any time, make changes to Wikipedia reference pages. Id. This impermanence of content has raised concerns about the accuracy of Wikipedia’s content and overall reliability in the context of judicial opinions or motions submitted for judicial review.

According to the Rosenthal court, judicial opinions began invoking Wikipedia references for support over a decade ago, in 2004. Rosenthal, 2017 WL 1041234, at *5 (citing Jodi L. Wilson, Proceed with Extreme Caution: Citation to Wikipedia in Light of Contributor Demographics and Content Policies, 16 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. L. 857, 868 (2014)). However, such citations were scarce and often related to non-dispositive matters or were included in string citations. In Bing Shun Li v. Holder, the Fifth Circuit cautioned against reliance on Wikipedia, agreeing that courts have found it to be an “unreliable source of information” and warning “against any improper reliance on it or similarly unreliable internet sources in the future.” 400 F. App’x 854, 857 (5th Cir. 2010).

Ultimately, the Supreme Court in Rosenthal held that the court of appeals improperly utilized Wikipedia as a primary source “to ascribe a specific, narrow definition to a single term that the court found significantly influenced the article’s gist.” 2017 WL 1041234, at *6 (emphasis added). Indeed, the main problem with the court of appeals’ decision was that it had relied on the Wikipedia definition “as the lynchpin of its analysis on a critical issue” despite the existence of other sources that offered a broader common meaning. Id. Importantly, the Supreme Court’s analysis highlights that citation to Wikipedia is favored as “a starting point for research purposes” or when used sparingly for minor points in judicial opinions. Id. at *5.

Following the court’s guidance, lawyers should be wary to rely completely on Wikipedia to support their arguments on dispositive matters. That said, more junior attorneys seeking a compendium of sources on a relevant issue may find Wikipedia an extremely beneficial—and cost effective—starting point. It is heartening to see the legal community taking advantage of the increased availability of resources to support their arguments. Moreover, it is particularly encouraging that this shift is initiated, at least in part, by the courts.

Alexis Kellert is an associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP, in New York City, New York.

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