Wikipedia Edits Support Defamation Claim–Pitale v. Holestine

By Eric Goldman

Pitale v. Holestine, 2012 WL 638755 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 27, 2012)

Given the size and scale of its database, it’s remarkable that we don’t see more US defamation lawsuits filed (rather than just threatened) over Wikipedia entries. It’s even more remarkable when you consider Wikipedia’s unique editorial practices, such as allowing anyone to edit and not having a paid editorial staff, both of which defy the normal offline editorial conventions forged from the courtroom crucible over the centuries. We’ve seen a few defamation lawsuits over Wikipedia entries, such as celebrity lawsuits (Fuzzy Zoeller, Ron Livingston) and sue-the-world lawsuits (e.g., this one), but most of those don’t appear to have gone very far. Indeed, I believe this opinion is the first one in Westlaw’s database to discuss the substance of a defamation claim for Wikipedia edits. (The only other similar one I found was Park West Galleries, Inc. v. Hochman, 2009 WL 5151315 (E.D. Mich. December 17, 2009), which allowed the plaintiff to get discovery about who edited the entries in question). Yet, despite its comparative novelty, this opinion reads like a normal defamation opinion. As I’ll explain in a moment, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Pitale runs some for-profit colleges. For 2 years, Holestine worked with Pitale and reported to him. After Holestine left, he allegedly made false statements about Pitale and the colleges in the “American Career College” and “Eldorado College” Wikipedia entries (made presumably from this account) as well as at a a blog. The court does a very careful job scrutinizing each claim and dismisses several on a motion to dismiss. However, the defamation/false light claims over several statements survive the motion.

Unlike most defamation lawsuits, there is a lot of metadata about this activity that can help us understand the dispute. The court obliquely says that the statements in question have been removed from the entries, but it doesn’t say who removed them or how quickly. Ultimately, the court ought to consider Wikipedia’s self-correction mechanisms in evaluating the claim’s merits. I didn’t run through the various versions, but it looks like the allegedly defamatory statements were corrected on the American Career College (by a user “Melissawest”) within a month; and on the Eldorado College page, the corrections were also within a month (by a user “Thecorrector2010″) and, after a second attempt to restore the material, within 2 days.

I think the judge should acknowledge the relatively short amount of time any allegedly defamatory material was actually displayed in the Wikipedia entries, as well as the low traffic to the pages. According to stats.grok.se, each of the two pages in question had a total of less than 1,000 pageviews in all of June and July 2010–some of which were pageviews to people immune to the defamation, such as Holestine, Pitale or other college officials, and the Wikipedia editors fixing the pages/correcting any defamation. (The relevant time period is mid-June to mid-July; I didn’t take the time to count page views during the specific window, but it’s even less). Clearly, these are relatively obscure pages, meaning that any reputational impact of the alleged defamation was surely small.

For that reason, this case probably doesn’t belong in court at all. Yet, like so many defamation lawsuits, economic rationality probably isn’t a main motivator for these combatants.

The court does give a nod to Wikipedia’s ethos in concluding that one statement was intended as a fact, not an opinion:

The overall context also suggests that the statement was intended as a statement of fact: Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia, primarily serving (or at least intending to serve) as a source of factual information rather than as a forum for expressing opinion. Wikipedia strives to be a repository of facts, not opinions. [with a footnote saying:] One of Wikipedia’s “three core content policies” is “neutral point of view.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_ view (Last accessed Feb. 27, 2012)

Yet, the judge doesn’t put 2+2 together to realize that the fairly quick reversions might reflect the other editors’ judgments that the edits failed to comply with these norms. Some of the comments in the edit history suggest that’s indeed the case.