Wikipedia:Don't overlook legal threats
This page is an essay on the biographies of living persons and no legal threats policies.
|This page in a nutshell: When editors blank articles or make legal threats, they may have good cause. Stop and look carefully before assuming they're disruptive or wielding a banhammer.|
|“||Bob, you really ought to take a look at Wikipedia. Those vile people have a truly awful article on you. I’d call my lawyer.||”|
After receiving his cousin's call, Bob Jones, a semi-famous journalist living in New York, looks up his entry on Wikipedia – a website he's never really visited before. To his horror he reads a ghastly article – either full of lies or a one-sided hatchet job spinning its sources to make him read like a dangerous criminal. (Actually, unbeknownst to him, the article was anonymously written by his…ex-lover, disgruntled ex-employee, old school-bully, business rival, dangerous stalker, etc…—but hey, they let anyone edit here!)
Furious, Bob is about to call his attorney in Trenton, when he sees the "anyone can edit" tagline. Without creating an account, he presses the edit tab, and thinking, "Hey, maybe I can sort this?", blanks the libelous piece of spite. "Phew, now how do I complain to a moderator?"
Then, something strange happens: A "You have new messages" notice appears, and there's some official-looking notice, on something called his "talk page", that's accusing him of wanton vandalism and spitting threats at him. What the hell is going on? Bob returns to the article and finds to his horror that "Wikipedia" has restored the libel. Now he's angry and unsure how to communicate the seriousness of this to the site, so he blanks the article again, leaving what he views as a clear but polite note: "Please do not replace this page. It contains legally actionable material. If it is replaced again, I will need to take legal action."
Meanwhile, Colin Gordon[nb 1] a.k.a. User:Headhunter409, from Blackacre in Auchterturra, is a high-school student (or maybe a retired mechanic). He likes editing, but what he really wants to do is be noticed as a good guy on project work—anti-vandalism, new page patrol—and his eye's really on being a Wikipedia administrator. He might be using automated tools to do more admin-type stuff, faster, and watching his edit count climbing. Before a late breakfast that morning he's doing a spot of vandal slaying—when he stumbles first across the blanking (revert and warn) and then Mr Jones' message. "No legal threats! I'll just pop to the administrators' noticeboard and issue an all-points bulletin to get an immediate block done." Checking off one more good judgement to cite at his RFA, he heads off, feeling good.
Switch back to Bob Jones: Bob's in a hell of a mess, and it's not his fault. He's officially blocked from editing as a Bad Editor, whilst his insane stalker is free to add more libels to the article. Bob has no idea why "Wikipedia" wants to do this to him—why don't they think about the effect their articles have? Why do they help someone wreck his life, then make it impossible to fix? His expensive lawyer is about to interrupt the legal team's morning's work at the Wikimedia Foundation.
One thing you can be sure of: Bob and the WMF's disastrously bad day won't be noted in Headhunter409's Request for adminship – in fact, Colin may never realize how much of a problem his actions, combined with the actions of the Wikipedia administrator who blocked Bob without looking into Bod's edits, have led to, for Wikipedia and for Bob.
The correct action to take
Later that day, Bob Jones's younger cousin, Joe Jones, wonders how Bob has done. Joe is a Python programmer (or maybe he just works as an IT technician in the local school) and likes Wikipedia (hey, they let anyone edit there), and really likes editing articles on video games. When he helped get Sega Genesis to featured article status he really felt like he knew what's what. Looking at the page history of Bob Jones's libelous Wikipedia page, he sees that the libel has been restored and Bob Jones blocked for legal threats and perceived by-Wikipedia vandalism. Horrified that the situation has escalated so much, Joe resolves to do something. Being up to speed with Wikipedia and its policies, and feeling that he at least has a grasp on the basics of editing, Joe decides to, instead of blanking the page, just remove the libelous content and replace it with accurate material to avoid tripping a filter. Joe puts a BLP template at the top of the page, inserts an infobox detailing that Bob Jones was born in Buffalo and currently lives in New York City, types up a quick lead saying that Bob is a journalist for such-and-such news organizations, and makes a section titled "Works" that lists the titles of some of the more well-known articles that Bob either authored or coauthored. After typing "Removed poorly sourced libelous content" in the edit summary, Joe Jones presses "Save changes". Joe also leaves a note on the talk page disclosing he has a WP:COI as he is a relative to subject and welcomes review from a third pair of eyes.
When the ex-lover/disgruntled ex-employee/old school-bully/business rival/dangerous stalker/etc… who originally created the page undoes Joe Jones's edit, Joe redoes his edit then requests that the page be semi-protected, citing BLP and presence of poorly sourced libelous content. Joe's request is accepted within an hour, and the administrator who semi-protects the page saves Joe's version, not the one with the libelous content. Bob Jones sues the page's author, who is now banned from Wikipedia, instead of the Wikimedia Foundation. Meanwhile, Joe gives Bob some advice on how Wikipedia works, as well as increasing his edit count by making grammatical improvements to various pages, so when his Request for Adminship comes around in a year, it passes 250/5/2. (Of course, Bob thinks the five "oppose voters" are the ex-lover/disgruntled ex-employee/old school-bully/business rival/dangerous stalker/etc… but he's got better things to think about).
- Don't be a DOLT – stop and think.
- Always check basic facts before making assumptions
- Never unblank biographies without asking why the IP might be blanking it. Remember, you could be personally responsible for re-publishing libellous content. Not good.
- When a legal threat is made, step back and ask "why?" Maybe there's an obvious reason, and you could help the victim rather than increase their woes. How would you feel if it were you? Point them in the right direction on Wikipedia where they can find how to contact someone to look at their side.
- Don't let policies like no vandalism and no legal threats lead to your editing cluelessly and adversely affecting some innocent person's life by your thoughtless action.
- Administrators reacting to a user's block request also need to stop and think, and ask "why?" before going ahead with a block.
- Wikipedia has real life consequences; Wikipedia is not a video game.
- If you aren't sure what to do with a legal threat, email the WMF's legal department at legalwikimedia.org where specially authorized users and staff can assess the situation.
Jimmy Wales on the same
In August 2006, Jimbo stated:
|“||There's a sort of typical pattern where I've seen this happen over and over and over. Somebody, they go to an article and they see something they don't like in it so they blank the article. So somebody warns them, and then they blank again and they get blocked. Then they make a legal threat and they really get blocked. And it's just like a totally bad experience for that person, when in fact, they may have been right in the first place. Or maybe they weren't right. maybe they just didn't like what we wrote about them, but still, we didn't handle it well ... And the few people who are still sort of in the old days, saying, "Well, you know, it's a wiki, why don't we just... ", yeah, they're sort of falling by the wayside, because lots of people are saying actually, we have a really serious responsibility to get things right.||”|
And in September 2008, further stated:
|“||The [No Legal Threats] policy is a good policy, overall, but there is a very unfortunate sequence of events that happens far too often. A BLP attack victim sees something horrible in Wikipedia, and I think we can all acknowledge that they have no moral responsibility to become Wikipedians to fix it. Some of them react in ways that we, as Wikipedians who favor reasoned discourse over threats, find inappropriate. Sure, and why not? They are being unfairly attacked and they are hurt and angry and they have no idea what our rules are. That's not their fault. Banning them on the spot for a legal threat is not a very helpful response, usually.||”|
And in November 2008:
|“||I see that a user was blocked for blanking this article, and I do understand why page blanking is generally discouraged. However, I must say, this article has no references and the template at the top says – correctly – that "Unsourced or poorly sourced material about living persons must be removed immediately, especially if potentially libelous or harmful. (April 2008)". We can't have it both ways: do we want to punish people for helping us to deal with the serious problem of BLPs?||”|
- Wikipedia:Wikipedia is in the real world
- Wikipedia:No legal threats
- Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons
- Headhunter409 is a fictional dolt, any resemblance to any actual dolt, whether living or dead, is purely coincidental. (But if the shoe fits….)
- Whether you are legally liable is not something on which we can give advice, but see French court decision of Mrs M. B., Mr P. T., Mr F. D. vs. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., which determined that as a host WMF was not responsible for the edits by its contributors and which then implies that each edit is the responsibility of the individual contributor. Barrett v. Rosenthal makes it clear that established United States law is that no one is legally liable for reposting libelous statements online; but this may not apply where the reposter conspires with an original content provider to defame. See Supreme Court of the State of California, Alameda County, Barrett v. Rosenthal: Court Opinion, Ct.App. 1/2 A096451. Remember, too, legality is not the sum of morality: do no harm. (Or where that's not possible, try not to do more than you have to.)
- Caveat: The ruling also "...decided that common law “distributor” liability survived the congressional grant of immunity, so that Internet service providers and users are exposed to liability if they republish a statement with notice of its defamatory character." Page 2, Paragraph 1 of the ruling.
- Wales, J, Speech at Wikimania: August 2006 Wikimania archives
- Wales, J, Post to Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents, 9 September 2008
- Wales, J, Post to Talk:Katy Brand, 2 November 2008