Over the past few years, definitions have fallen out of favor, replaced by Humpty-Dumptyisms that serve their purpose in twitter-level discussion. But the vagaries that make total sense in the context of the echo chamber have yet to be accepted in court. As Eric Goldman discusses, there is a definitional void that needs fillin’.
This is an interesting opinion from the Texas Supreme Court on citing Wikipedia as a dictionary. The underlying case involves an article in D Magazine titled “The Park Cities Welfare Queen.” The article purports to show that the plaintiff, Rosenthal, “has figured out how to get food stamps while living in the lap of luxury.” After publication, evidence emerged that the plaintiff has not committed welfare fraud. She sued the magazine for defamation.
So what is a “Welfare Queen”? Much as it has become a common slur, roundly understood as such, is there an “official” definition? If so, who gets to decide what it is?
The appeals court denied the magazine’s anti-SLAPP motion in part because it held the term “Welfare Queen,” as informed by the Wikipedia entry, could be defamatory. The Texas Supreme Court affirms the anti-SLAPP denial, but it also criticizes the appeals court for not sufficiently examining the entire article’s gist. Along the way, the court opines on the credibility and validity of Wikipedia as a dictionary. TL;DR = the Supreme Court says don’t treat Wikipedia like a dictionary.
In the early days of the internet, the notion of crowdsourcing information was beloved. How could sixty million Frenchmen be wrong? Would we not get better, truer, information if it reflected the mass of human information, unfiltered through the lens of the keepers of information? Heady times, until people realized how easily it was gamed to distort information to promote an agenda, sometimes well-intended but other times malevolent.
Legal commentators may debate whether and to what extent courts could properly rely on online sources like Wikipedia, but the most damning indictment of Wikipedia’s authoritative force comes directly from Wikipedia:
• “WIKIPEDIA MAKES NO GUARANTEE OF VALIDITY”
• “Please be advised that nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by people with the expertise required to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information.”
• “Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here.”
• “Wikipedia is not uniformly peer reviewed.”
• “[A]ll information read here is without any implied warranty of fitness for any purpose or use whatsoever.”
• “Even articles that have been vetted by informal peer review or featured article processes may later have been edited inappropriately, just before you view them.”
And because she could, her concurrence crushed the point at the outset:
Eric adds his “thoughts” to the mix:
It makes sense not to treat Wikipedia as the authoritative citation source. However, I would make the same declaration about many sources, crowd-sourced or not. Often, a range of sources is required to establish a “fact.” We especially see the trickiness of treating a single dictionary as an authoritative source, because there are often subtle but crucial differences in dictionaries’ definitions of the same term. In contrast, sometimes Wikipedia is an OK citation for the zeitgeist about an issue, where the citation is for the ranges of issues rather than for the truth of any issue.
There’s his point about Wikipedia, that it may adequately serve to fill in the context or background, the “zeitgeist about an issue” as he calls it, it cannot serve as an authoritative source. But he also raises the question of whether any single source is authoritative, whether there is a source that everyone in law can agree provides the conclusive definition of a word. Is it Bryan Garner’s Black’s Legal Dictionary? Is it your Funk & Wagnalls? When cases rise or fall on a definition, who gets to authoritatively provide a source upon which we can universally agree the court can rely?
And then Eric introduces even more confusion into the mix:
I was a little surprised that the court didn’t discuss the Urban Dictionary as an alternative to Wikipedia as a dictionary (it comes up only in a reference in a footnote in Guzman’s opinion). What I like about Urban Dictionary is that it doesn’t purport to offer a single definition of any term. Instead, it lists a range of opinions with crowd-sourced voting. In my experience, the Urban Dictionary often fills in the gaps in my “street lingo” much better than any other source, so long as I use it advisedly.
I often turn to the Urban Dictionary to figure out what the kids are talking about. My finger is not exactly on the pulse of pop culture, and words (and particularly acronyms) that find their way onto my screen are often unfamiliar. Where else can a guy look?
The problem, however, is that while Urban Dictionary offers as many definitions as people are willing to offer, few are particularly clear and comprehensible. It’s not the fault of the authors, as they aren’t paid well enough to work hard on it, and they often offer examples to flesh out their definitions, but they still don’t provide the level of clarity necessary for law or the determination of rights, duties and damages.
And then Eric brings his own scholarly interests into the mix:
I’m paying closer attention to courts’ citations to online dictionaries based on my research for my Emojis and the Law paper. As bad as things are between Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary as online dictionaries, things are much worse with emojis because no credible dictionary is trying to provide definitive definitions of emojis. Eventually, as I’ll argue in my paper, we’ll need the equivalent of an Urban Dictionary for emojis to capture their disparate meanings across online subcommunities.
We can’t figure out what words mean, but let’s define emojis? Much as I appreciate Eric’s focus on a pervasive indulgence that is replacing squiggly lines of dubious definition with small images favored by tweens and woke police officers, can there ever be a “credible dictionary” of emojis?
We’re already stuck trying to ascribe adequate meaning to words that reflect vaguely accepted concepts, there being no authoritative source. Try telling a tween that they’ve used an emoji wrong, “that’s not what it means!!!” Try telling a judge that the plaintiff should receive compensation because of it, or that societal rights should be allocated because, well, you know.