Is Wikipedia Good Enough for the Courts?

The New York Times’ Noam Cohen has this interesting piece today about the increasing appearance of Wikipedia citations in court decisions. Since 2004, more than 100 judicial rulings have relied on Wikipedia entries, at least for background explanation. Although the Supreme Court has yet to cite Wikipedia in a decision, the circuit court of appeals, one level below the S. Ct., has named the user-contributed, web-based encyclopedia as a resource.

Courts typically rely on only well-established reference resources and Wikipedia itself warns about the accuracy and reliability of the crowd-edited entries. But, judges aren’t (for the most part) stupid people and they can see for themselves what we all see — Wikipedia is often more comprehensive, more up-to-date and more reliable than even the most respected dead-tree compendium.

“Wikipedia is a terrific resource,” said Judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago. “Partly because it so convenient, it often has been updated recently and is very accurate.” But, he added: “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.”

One real problem with Wikipedia is that the entries are fluid, subject to constant change and revision, making it difficult for lawyers and judges in lengthy cases to go back and review Wikipedia citations. But, as Larry Lessig notes in the article, an archiving system called WebCitation is available to handle this quickly dated nature of Wikipedia, or any other web site for that matter.

Posted by Cynthia Brumfield on January 29, 2007 8:24 AM to IP Democracy