In a recent court opinion, Judge Statsinger of the Criminal Court of the City of New York, cites to my definition of “revenge porn” in Footnote 1. To get technical, Judge Statsinger cites to the Wikipedia article about revenge porn, which I wrote last fall.
It’s exciting to see something that I wrote cited in a legal opinion, but it’s more exciting that Judge Statsinger (or at least, one of his clerks) recognized how Wikipedia operates as a valuable resource for legal research.
To be clear: there is an important difference between “resource for legal research” and “legal resource.” And I’m talking about the former.
Judge Richard A. Posner, of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, has described Wikipedia as “a terrific resource.” He isn’t alone in his thinking: Nearly 1,000 cases have cited to Wikipedia, including cases in every federal circuit court. It’s regularly referred to in motions, briefs, and law review articles. And despite continued skepticism about Wikipedia’s reliability, Wikipedia frequently serves as the starting point for legal research.
Even Judge Posner, in all his enthusiasm, added an obvious caveat: “It wouldn’t be right to use [Wikipedia] in a critical issue. If the safety of a product is at issue, you wouldn’t look it up in Wikipedia.”
As the encyclopedia anyone can edit, it’s understandable that people have an immediate (mostly negative) reaction to courts of law citing to a resource like Wikipedia. Even though the information in Wikipedia articles can be audited, either by reviewing who made edits to an article or analyzing the sources it cites, there is a generally impression that Wikipedia has no place in scholarship – legal, or otherwise. (If you’re curious about the accuracy of Wikipedia, I strongly recommend the Wikipedia article on the topic.)
Wikipedia is not a substitute for citations to case law or legal treatises. But Judge Statsinger’s decision is a great example of how Wikipedia can effectively be used in a legal decision.
I’ve seen this trend more and more, which is why I’ve proposed a Wikimania 2014 Workshop about “Wikipedia for Lawyers.” My proposal focuses on two issues: best practices and contribution values.
The short version of my pitch is that legal researchers should be educated about what happens behind the screens at Wikipedia – about how articles’ histories can be viewed, how to cite to specific versions of articles, and how reliability can be audited. And, as NYU Law’s inaugural Innovation Law and Policy Editathon demonstrated, lawyers are excited to contribute to and improve Wikipedia once they have a deeper understanding of how it works.
The full proposal is available here.