Tax Litigation Tax Procedure

Courts Should Not Rely on Information from the Wikipedia

The Wikipedia is a popular internet encyclopedia that is written and edited online by anonymous individuals. As the popularity of the Wikipedia grows, so too does the perception that the Wikipedia provides accurate and reliable information. For instance, the United States Tax Court cited the Wikipedia today in its Ferguson v. Commissioner opinion. As the title of this post indicates, I personally do not think that the tax court – or any other court – should rely on information found in the Wikipedia.

In many cases judges are permitted to take (judicial) notice of facts that are generally known to the public, if the facts are not in dispute and, in some instances, where the facts are readily ascertainable by accurate and reliable sources. Much (if not all) of the information contained in the Wikipedia does not appear to meet these guidelines.

It appears that very little of the information contained in the Wikipedia consists of “facts.” The term “fact” generally refers to a concept that can be proved. Therefore a concept is only a “fact” if it can be verified by a credible outside source. Because the Wikipedia is authored and edited by anonymous individuals who have their own agendas and shortcomings, much of the Wikipedia content cannot be verified by credible outside sources. In many instances, Wikipedia content cannot be verified at all or, if verifiable, the content is incorrect or outdated.

In addition, much of the Wikipedia content is not generally known to the public. The Wikipedia is replete with obscure articles on items that are certainly not known to the general public (If much of the content were generally know to the public, then the content might not need to be included in the Wikipedia in the first place).

Few would refer to the Wikipedia as “accurate and reliable,” since individuals often use the Wikipedia to further their own personal and profit objectives and individuals who write and edit the majority of the Wikipedia articles usually have no specific knowledge of or expertise in the given subject matter (it appears that much of the Wikipedia content is obtained by individuals who illegally copy information from private websites and/or paste together snippets of content from numerous websites – many of which contain in accurate, dated, and obsolete content).

A simple Goolge search – no less accurate I suppose – reveals thousands of complaints of incorrect Wikipedia articles, ranging from Wikipedia articles that falsely indicate that a particular person assassinated JFK to Wikipedia articles that say that someone’s deceased parent was considered a God in several foreign countries.

Because of these shortcomings, it appears that courts may only be able to cite to the Wikipedia for facts that are not in dispute and facts that are so remote that they would not impact the court’s decision. Even then, reliance on this highly suspect material may present problems for the courts.

For example, a court that relies on the Wikipedia for “facts” may give the non-prevailing party a valid excuse to have the courts decision overturned on appeal (perhaps because the Wikipedia “facts” were not admitted into evidence, the party was not given the opportunity to consider and object to the Wikipedia “facts,” or, I presume, in most cases the specific author(s) would not be in court to support their out of court Wikipedia statement of “fact,” or the non-prevailing party may be able to successfully argue that any bias or fallacies evidenced in the Wikipedia article was imputed to the judge who relied on the article). If that is not bad enough, reliance on the Wikipedia by courts may encourage individuals to author and/or edit Wikipedia articles to further their own positions, thereby undermining judicial process.

While other commentators have expressed favorable opinions of courts relying on the Wikipedia, I do not share that opinion.