Is Wikipedia an authoritative legal source?

Chris Hanslik

July 25, 2017

As new words are seemingly coined every day, it is not always clear how to establish the legal meaning of newfangled slang—especially when it forms the basis of a defamation claim. For now, it appears that any attempt to define a term using online, open-content pages like Wikipedia should be bolstered by additional, vetted sources to best establish a term’s meaning.

Recently, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in the D Magazine v. Janay Bender Rosenthal case on this very matter: the use of Wikipedia as a source in legal proceedings.

Here’s the background story: D Magazine published an article under the heading “CRIME” titled “The Park Cities Welfare Queen” that described Janay Bender Rosenthal as a “University Park mom” who “figured out how to get food stamps while living in the lap of luxury” and ran Rosenthal’s mugshot from a prior, unrelated arrest prominently next to the title. The article implied that someone in her situation would “never qualify” for food stamps. D Magazine printed the article and attributed it to an “anonymous Park Cities parent.”

Prior to publishing, D Magazine contacted Rosenthal for comment. Rosenthal told the magazine editor that that she believed the article was fueled by her fiancé’s ex-girlfriend, and while Rosenthal had obtained food stamps, she had done so lawfully. Even so, D Magazine ran the article.

After the article had been published, Rosenthal followed up with the Commission to inquire whether she had committed any wrongdoing when she obtained food stamps. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the agency responsible for administering food stamps, investigated and stated that its “investigation found no evidence that anyone had fraudulently obtained or otherwise abused state benefits.” Rosenthal forwarded this letter to D Magazine.

Rosenthal then sued D Magazine for defamation and several other statutory claims. In response, D Magazine filed a motion to dismiss Rosenthal’s defamation claim pursuant to the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA). A TCPA motion allows for early case dismissal—typically within 90 days of filing—of torts like defamation, tortious interference, and malicious prosecution. For more on the TCPA, click here.

In this case, a major source of the TCPA analysis relied on Wikipedia’s definition of “Welfare Queen” to define one of the terms in the article’s title. As the Texas Supreme Court noted, references to Wikipedia in judicial opinions began in the early 2000s and have increased each year. The Texas Supreme Court also noted, however, that Wikipedia references are typically a small percentage of legal opinions, and are normally used to show non-dispositive matters or are otherwise included as a string citation to prove a single point. In this case, Rosenthal relied heavily on Wikipedia, and in finding in her favor, the trial and appellate courts likewise did so. To the Texas Supreme Court, D Magazine argued Wikipedia to be an inappropriate source for judicial opinions. The Texas Supreme Court partially agreed.

Ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court declined to adopt a bright-line rule to measure the propriety of using Wikipedia as a source in judicial proceedings and opinions, but did rule that Wikipedia should not be used as the sole source of authority on an issue of significance.

As for the D Magazine v. Janay Bender Rosenthal case, the Texas Supreme Court found that the underlying courts’ employment of Wikipedia as their primary source was improper. (In a defamation suit, the court is tasked with considering the statement’s gist in order to determine whether the statement is defamatory.) Using Wikipedia to ascribe a specific, narrow definition to “Welfare Queen” that—as the underlying courts held—significantly influenced the gist of the article was improper. It ruled that Wikipedia should not be used as the lynchpin of a court’s analysis.

For attorneys and their clients, it might be best to err on the side of caution when relying on Wikipedia and other web-based resources as the primary authority on an issue of any significance to a case.