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Wikipedia Goes On Trial?

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Professors at most major universities frown upon research papers that cite Wikipedia as a resource, given the socially driven nature of the site. The United States judicial system, however, seems to believe that using Wikipedia as a reference in court rulings is a good idea.

All told, more than 100 judicial rulings have reference Wikipedia in some fashion. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, just one notch below the Supreme Court, has made use of Wikipedia 13 times in its decision-making processes.

Just how significant of a role does Wikipedia play in current judiciary opinions? Noam Cohen of the New York Times writes about the reasons behind the judiciary system’s implementation of the user-generated reference in legal proceedings:

For now, Professor [Stephen] Gillers said, Wikipedia is best used for “soft facts” that are not central to the reasoning of a decision. All of which leads to the question, if a fact isn’t central to a judge’s ruling, why include it?

“Because you want your opinion to be readable,” said Professor Gillers. “You want to apply context. Judges will try to set the stage. There are background facts. You don’t have to include them. They are not determinative. But they help the reader appreciate the context.”


The courts seem to be flirting with a very dangerous line between balancing context and relevancy by making use of Wikipedia in communicating legal opinions.

It seems to me that even if the intent is purely contextual, the door is left wide open for aggressive attorneys to punch holes in the validity of such decisions. Relying too heavily on Wikipedia puts the judicial system on very shaky legal ground, to be sure.

Perhaps the responsible thing for Jimmy Wales and the rest of the Wikipedia brass to do would be to organize some sort of academically approved sanctioning body to review and approve entries, giving them some element of credibility.

Citizendium is already implementing a similar model, why can’t Wikipedia?

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Joe is a staff writer for WebProNews. Visit WebProNews for the latest ebusiness news.

Wikipedia Goes On Trial?
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