December 7, 2005 4:00 AM PST

Is Wikipedia safe from libel liability?

If someone accuses you on Wikipedia of being responsible for killing a person, don't expect much relief from the courts.

That's a lesson that's emerging from former journalist John Seigenthaler's run-in with an article in the online, anyone-can-contribute encyclopedia, which for four months carried an article falsely linking him to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy.

But as angry as Seigenthaler was, and as untrue as the article had been, it's unlikely that he has a good court case against Wikipedia, according to legal experts interviewed by CNET Seigenthaler himself acknowledged as much in a USA Today op-ed piece.


What's new:
A case in which a man was falsely linked on Wikipedia to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy has led some to question the online encyclopedia's libel liability.

Bottom line:
While Wikipedia is most likely safe from legal liability for libel, the issues raised by the Seigenthaler case should be carefully considered, some legal experts say.

More stories on Wikipedia

Thanks to section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which became law in 1996, Wikipedia is most likely safe from legal liability for libel, regardless of how long an inaccurate article stays on the site. That's because it is a service provider as opposed to a publisher such as or

"I think that there's no liability, period," said Jennifer Granick, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University Law School. "Section 230 gives you immunity for this."

In his scathing, Nov. 29 opinion column in USA Today, the 78-year-old Seigenthaler wrote that in the original Wikipedia article, "one sentence was true. I was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant." The article was written by an anonymous Wikipedia user traceable only to a BellSouth Internet account, but Seigenthaler added that the giant ISP wouldn't reveal the author's name.

And despite his protestations, Seigenthaler wrote, Wikipedia's only action prior to removing the offending article on Oct. 5 was to change a misspelling on May 29, just three days after it was originally posted.

On Monday, Wikipedia announced that it would no longer allow unregistered users to post new articles, on the theory that members--who have provided some personal information to register--will be more accountable for what they write. However, registering for Wikipedia takes only seconds and doesn't even require providing an e-mail address.

Of course, Wikipedia's standing has yet to be tested in a courtroom. Until then, no one can say for certain that the fast-growing online encyclopedia--which hosts 853,630 articles in English and in excess of a million more in dozens of other languages, and which has grown from 16,061 registered users in October 2004 to 45,351 at the end of October 2005--isn't liable for material that appears on the site.

Related perspective
When Wikipedia errs
CNET's Charles Cooper
weighs in on the relationship
between Wikipedia and truth.

But people like Seigenthaler who are unhappy about an anonymous posting on the site may well find that they have no legal recourse since Congress has decided that without giving service providers protections against legal liability, only very rich and cautious media companies would be able to host third parties' content, said Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In one of the most famous cases testing a service provider's liability, Zeran v. America Online, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, located in Philadelphia, ruled unambiguously that online services like AOL, or Wikipedia are protected under the CDA, said Opsahl.

"By its plain language, section 230 creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service," the 3rd Circuit wrote in its 1997 opinion.

CONTINUED: A 'best of breed' approach…
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Wikipedia may be insulated from liability...
...but it's not insulated from legal bills.
Posted by (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I use Wikipedia
I use Wikipedia with the knowledge that it might not be accurate. What do you want from a free service? Even the NY Times has mistakes

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Posted by SqlserverCode (165 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Oh Please
Instead of crying about it on tv, Seigenthaler could have corrected the article himself in seconds. In case of an edit war on Wikipedia the article can be locked and there is a dispute resolution process already in place.

There is no doubt that Wikipedia will never be error free or troll free but no Encyclopedia will ever be perfect.

The following link is an example of errors in the Britannica Ecnyclopedia: <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by me_news (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I don't buy it
Wikipedia is still not an "information service provider". They do not provide access to the server, they provide the server itself. I think they could still be liable.
Posted by Jim1900 (821 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nice in theory, crud in practice.
Bathroom walls have more editorial control than Wikipedia.
A wiki is only as good as the community - and unfortunately, the community is riddled with punks, jokers, and scumbags.
Otherwise, we wouldn't need policemen or cash-registers.
Posted by powerclam (70 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Just curious
If Mr. Seigenthaler was so upset, why didn't he just edit the article and correct it? In all the reports of this incident, I haven't seen any indication that he tried this simple fix. After all, any anonymous bozo is allowed to edit, correct? He wouldn't even have to register.
Posted by The Freeholder (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: Just Curious
I think the point is that the information was there, visible to everyone, and totally incorrect. If someone was a little naive or unsuspecting and was using Wikipedia to provide research information, for that moment they would be reading and relying on _false_ information.

Imagine, especially, if a high school or elementary school suggested students rely on Wikipedia for information, and such bogus information were to appear.

Overall, I think Wikipedia needs to accept that they can't always be the most accurate source of information, and should probably put some clear and visible disclaimers on every page. Too many people are treating Wikipedia like the end-all encyclopedia, and Wikipedia, of course, is happy to let people think that, because it drives more people to the site and raises awareness of the project.
Posted by jamesmadison909 (3 comments )
Link Flag
Actually, I think it's funny.

It's funny this happened to a journalist and he got all bent out of shape about it.

It's funny in light of all the false, and rush to print before validating stuff, that journalists do. All the crap they say and print, and then act like they never did when it turns out to be totally false. Or if they do admit it, the admition (not apology) ends up burried somewhere while the old headline is still there for anyone to find.

Just deserts in a way. They certainly don't like it when the shoe is on the other foot. What goes around and all that ...

And as mentioned before he could have easily dealt with it himself online at the site. This seems more like publicity, or the 'established' press trying to take on the grass roots press/info sites that are making them more and more obsolete.
Posted by kxmmxk (320 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The Afrimerican View of Wikipedia
In posting my first article on Wikipedia about the afrimerican word and definition, I just assumed it would be logged and left up because it was new, informative, verifiable, and pertinent to providing fact based information all the world publics would benefit from knowing.

I was surprised whenit got deleted, and doubly syrprised that after said deletion, a banner went uo requesting an article about "AFRIMERICAN", so I wrote another one, and then another one, all of which were deleted.

In the talk back pages, which is a supposedly open discussion with Wikipedia monitors and administrators, the reaction to "Afrimerican" was more so personal, than objective, and void of any real research to prove or disprove claims made about Afrimerican. In fact most of what was said by Wikipedia personell was false, and then when proof was provided per their false claims, and along with information that proved the validity of all written in the Afrimerican article, their arguement became personal, and claims of racism, were hurled back and forth until I quit writing there.

Later, months ;later, I see Wikipedia is listed first or second when one does an internet search of African-American, Black, or Negro, but not Afrimerican, and I surmised part of their reasoning for deleting the Afrimerican article is becuse they can't put their own spin on itto feed the system of institutional racism bred from feeding the masses, and the race of Afrimericans misleading, and ambiguous information that creates an endless, pointless debate.

It is only in recent times that I have learned that Wikipedia is far short of the authority on any subject, that it's integrity is highly questionable, and that it's owners have found a way to propogate information as the see fit, per their own agenda, and racism, and they hide behind the legal sheild of the open editing claim, which, while true, in the end the final version is all Wikipedia, and they hide behind the open edit claim when they are confronted with their wrong doing, but it's Wikipedia staff, not the public that delivers the final version, and in cases that relate to Afrimericans, and Negroid people in general, Wikipedia has been extremely biased, defamatory, and slanderous without any opposing, and fact based information being allowed.

Afrimerican is filming a documentary and part of the documentary is to see how many times we can post an Afrimerican article on Wikipedia, and how many times wikipedia deletes it. It will be interesting to see the final count, in the meantime, I encourage everyone to ask Wikipedia why they keep deleting the Afrimerican article.

When Wikipedia is finally made/legally ordered to answer for their libel, please contact
Posted by Afrimerican (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Afrimerican is not a real word
Stop making words up. I couldn't find Afrimerican in any of the dictionaries I have at home and I couldn't find it in any of the online dictionaries below:

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Posted by jeff_999 (1 comment )
Link Flag
Here we go again
Give it up. Should Wikipedia have the right to remove content from the site? YES!! Is it right? That is debatable. However, seeing that they have an open-edit policy it appears they have a right to remove and change content as they see fit. If you feel that Wikipedia's "integrity is highly questionable". Why would you want your content there? Why wouldn't you want it in Britanica or any other encyclepedia?
Posted by VI Joker (231 comments )
Link Flag
Wikipedia's Defamation Superhighway
I have been testing the Wikipedia waters for some time now and have composed a report on abuses by General Wales's army of volunteer authorities:

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Posted by Wyatt_Ehrenfels (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

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