Wikipedia:Don't overlook legal threats

The scenarioEdit

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 Bob's edits, have led to, for Wikipedia and for Bob.

The messageEdit

  • 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.[1][2] 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 legal where specially authorized users and staff can assess the situation.

Jimmy Wales on the sameEdit

In August 2006, Jimbo stated:

And in September 2008, further stated:

And in November 2008:

See alsoEdit


Informational notes

  1. ^ Headhunter409 is a fictional dolt, any resemblance to any actual dolt, whether living or dead, is purely coincidental. (But if the shoe fits….)


  1. ^ 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.)
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Wales, J, Speech at Wikimania: August 2006 Wikimania archives
  4. ^ Wales, J, Post to Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents, 9 September 2008
  5. ^ Wales, J, Post to Talk:Katy Brand, 2 November 2008