Wednesday, January 31, 2007

U.S. Judges get their History from...Wikipedia

While I was on the road...

The New York Times reported that U.S. judges often turn to Wikipedia as a source cited in their opinions. Yikes! Here's the Times:
A simple search of published court decisions shows that Wikipedia is frequently cited by judges around the country, involving serious issues and the bizarre — such as a 2005 tax case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals concerning the definition of “beverage” that involved hundreds of thousands of dollars, and, just this week, a case in Federal District Court in Florida that involved the term “booty music” as played during a wet T-shirt contest.

More than 100 judicial rulings have relied on Wikipedia, beginning in 2004, including 13 from circuit courts of appeal, one step below the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court thus far has never cited Wikipedia.)

Even Judge Richard Posner likes it, and has cited to it in an opinion, even though there was a mistake in his own listing, with Ann Coulter, who he had never met, listed as a former law clerk. “Wikipedia is a terrific resource,” Posner told the NY Times. He noted, however, 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.” Good call.

Another Wikipedia lover is none other than the venerable Cass Sunstein of the Univ. of Chicago Law School, now visiting at Harvard. He seems to think there is a time and place for it, however. "I don’t think it is yet time to cite it in judicial decisions.” He also told the Times that "he feared that 'if judges use Wikipedia you might introduce opportunistic editing' to create articles that could influence the outcome of cases."

The embrace of Wikipedia in legal circles is happening at a time when it is being banned as a cite-able source in some undergraduate settings. Inside Higher Education recently reported the Middlebury College History Department's decision to bar students from citing to web sources, and other efforts to restrict use of Wikipedia. According to the article "'As educators, we are in the business of reducing the dissemination of misinformation,' said Don Wyatt, chair of the department. 'Even though Wikipedia may have some value, particularly from the value of leading students to citable sources, it is not itself an appropriate source for citation,' he said."

Inside Higher Ed also talked to the guru of history on the web, Roy Rozenswieg, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. After analyzing Wikipedia for the Journal of American History,
he found that in many entries, Wikipedia was as accurate or more accurate than more traditional encyclopedias. He said that the quality of material was inconsistent, and that biographical entries were generally well done, while more thematic entries were much less so....He said the real problem is one of college students using encyclopedias when they should be using more advanced sources.

"College students shouldn’t be citing encyclopedias in their papers," he said. "That’s not what college is about. They either should be using primary sources or serious secondary sources."

(Rozenswieg's essay with Daniel J. Cohen, "Web of Lies? Historical Knowledge on the Internet," embracing the relationship between history and the internet with open eyes, is here, on First Monday.)

And judges? In writing opinions? Perhaps we should hold them to standards no lower than Rozenswieg's history undergraduates.