By Judge Audrey Headrick, Chattanooga
Do you love Wikipedia? Perhaps you’re a loyal reader of The Onion? Maybe you even cite to Wikipedia in briefs as a source for medical diagnoses/procedures or utilize it as a dictionary to define terms?
If so, I have three cautionary words for you: Don’t. Do. It!
Yes, I know that some of you might argue that “all of the courts” are now citing to Wikipedia. Surprisingly, research shows that courts, advocates, and law review authors alike rely on Wikipedia to some degree.
A LexisNexis search shows that the first time a Tennessee judicial opinion cited Wikipedia was English Mountain Spring Water Co. v. Chumley. In the case, the Tennessee Department of Revenue provided websites, including Wikipedia, to define “beverage.” The Court noted that, at that time, the only case in the United States even to reference Wikipedia was a non-published California case. After noting that Wikipedia “is open to virtually anonymous editing by the general public, the expertise of its editors is always in question, and its reliability is indeterminable,” the Court didn’t find Wikipedia persuasive authority.
Despite the Tennessee Court’s skepticism, other courts in the United States have frequently cited and relied upon Wikipedia for informational purposes, including defining terms. Before his retirement, Judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit was one of the most notable proponents of Wikipedia. He frequently cited Wikipedia in his opinions and stated, “Wikipedia is a terrific resource . . . [but] [i]t wouldn’t be right to use it in a critical issue.”
However, if all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too? I hope not! A quick search of orders entered by the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims and opinions issued by the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board indicates we’re not relying on Wikipedia.
You might ask, “What about using Wikipedia simply to define terms?”
Let’s consider how reliable Wikipedia really is. On its website, Wikipedia welcomes users to “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” (Emphasis added.) It goes on to explain that “[u]sers can contribute anonymously, under a pseudonym, or, if they choose to, with their real identity.” Since the content is constantly created and updated, the website cautions that, “any article may contain undetected misinformation, errors, or vandalism.” Surprisingly, Alexa (no, not that Alexa) ranks Wikipedia as the sixth most popular website in the United States based on its website traffic.
Even more surprising is the fact that two Tennessee lawmakers recently cited Wikipedia and The Onion while debating a bill targeting hazing. This occurred while the state representatives argued before the House Criminal Justice Committee in Nashville.
You already know the risks involved with relying on Wikipedia. Regarding The Onion, it consists of FAKE NEWS. It’s a satirical (and hilarious) website.
So, you might be thinking, “Should I or shouldn’t I use these as sources in my brief?” The answer is no; they’re not authoritative. Instead, find some case law from the Appeals Board or the Supreme Court.