Would you even consider citing to Wikipedia in a brief or other legal document? Well, Federal Appeals Courts have cited to it nearly 100 times in the past 5 years according to The Wall Street Journal Law Blog. The Law Blog decided to research this trend after the recent decision of the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Forth Circuit, United States v. Lawson, in which the judges criticized its use.
In this case, the court vacated several convictions due to juror misconduct which involved the unauthorized research of an element of the crime on Wikipedia, claiming that this deprived the defendants of their right to a fair trial. It considers Wikipedia to be unreliable because of open access, meaning that anyone can register for a Wikipedia account and then create and edit anything they want.
I myself have done just that. After creating my account, I logged in and added some information to an entry for which I have knowledge but for which I did not create. In addition, it is basically policed by its registrants. Although Wikipedia prefers the preservation of information already entered, it can be removed or flagged directly by the registrant if it is inappropriate or incorrect. Thus, there is the possibility that the information might be inaccurate, exaggerated, misleading, and the like. See Wikipedia’s Editing Policy.
However, many courts have cited it for various reasons, including for definitions of terms, descriptions of injuries, and biographical information. In some cases this could have an impact on the outcome of the case. Although Judge Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago, believes “Wikipedia is a terrific resource,” he added that “It wouldn’t be right to use it in a critical issue. If the safety of a product is at issue, you wouldn’t look it up in Wikipedia.” Courts turn to Wikipedia, but Selectively
As a result of its research, the Law Blog found the following citations statistics.
- Seventh Circuit: 36 citations
- Ninth Circuit: 17 citations
- Tenth Circuit: 8 citations
- Sixth Circuit: 6 citations
- D.C. Circuit, Federal Circuit, Supreme Court: 0 citations
- Remaining Circuits: 5 or less citations
Obviously this opens up the door for a lot of questions. Will judges increasingly cite to Wikipedia as if it were an authoritative source? What would this teach our law students? What ethical implications would this have? It seems that, when it comes to substantive issues, the citations should be from a truly authoritative and reliable source.