An immigration judge is under fire after he cited Wikipedia in his ruling, and some say it is just the newest example of a disturbing trend.

The online “free encyclopedia,” written and edited by its users, has been considered an unreliable source by teachers, authors, editors, patent examiners, librarians and researchers. But now a judge has based part of his ruling on a Wikipedia entry, Bender’s Immigration Bulletin reported.

Homeland Security cites Wikipedia

An Italian woman named Lamilem Badasa entered the United States using fraudulent papers and applied for asylum under Article III of the Convention Against Torture. It was denied because she did not have valid identification. However, she acquired a travel document from Ethiopia to prove her identity – a pass known as laissez-passer.

The Bureau of Immigration Appeals agreed to resubmit her case to an immigration judge. After reviewing her documents, Department of Homeland Security officials claimed laissez-passer does not establish identity – and to explain the purpose of the travel document, they provided an entry from Wikipedia.

At the time of this WND report, the website’s laissez-passer entry was four paragraphs long and did not cite a single reference or source. Yet, an unnamed immigration judge took DHS’ information, ruled against Badasa, denied asylum and rejected her appeal.

Following his decision, the Bureau of Immigration Appeals claimed it “did not condone or encourage the use of resources such as in reaching pivotal decisions in immigration proceedings,” according to last week’s ruling filed by Judge Steven M. Colloton of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. It said the immigration judge’s decision “may have appeared more solid had not been referenced.”

The self-described “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” tells the public, “Don’t be afraid to edit – anyone can edit almost any page, and we encourage you to be bold! Find something that can be improved, whether content, grammar or formatting, and make it better.” The organization simultaneously claims federal law protects it from liability of its users’ edits because it operates an “interactive computer service.”

The Bureau of Immigration Appeals “presumably was concerned that Wikipedia is not a sufficiently reliable source on which to rest the determination that an alien alleging a risk of future persecution is not entitled to asylum,” according to court documents.

Badasa was granted a new review by the appeals court, and the case was sent back to the Bureau of Immigration Appeals.

Courts catch Wikipedia fever

In “Courting Wikipedia,” the American Association for Justice recently revealed an alarming trend toward courts referencing the website in more than 100 published opinions.

“The citations are sometimes inexplicable,” Jason Richards wrote. “The Seventh Circuit, for example, cited Wikipedia in a recent drug case to provide background information on the defendant (“Radomski is a former trainer of the Polish boxer Andrew Golota – the world’s most colorful boxer”), even though Judge Richard Posner, who wrote the opinion, had firsthand experience of the Web site’s unreliability.”

In another Seventh Circuit case, John M. Rickher v. Home Depot, Inc., the plaintiff cited Webster’s II New College Dictionary and Random House Webster’s College Dictionary definitions for “wear and tear” in a class action suit against the company’s damage waiver for tool rentals. The court opted instead to use a definition found on Wikipedia:

Although it is true that dictionary definitions of “wear and tear” often employ the word “damage,” that does not mean that damage and “wear and tear” are synonymous. Wear and tear is a more specific phrase that connotes the expected, often gradual, depreciation of an item. See Wear and Tear, , last visited May 30, 2008.

“[I]t provides an example of a disturbing trend,” Richards continued. “More and more law students and law professors are citing to entries in this publicly authored Web site in their papers, attorneys are relying on it in their legal briefs, expert witnesses are using it to support their opinions, and courts are citing the source either tangentially or, even worse, as the primary legal basis for their opinions.”

The report reveals the Eleventh Circuit was the first court to cite Wikipedia in its 2004 published opinion. It did so to explain the Department of Homeland Security’s threat-level system after antiwar protesters claimed their First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated when authorities conducted magnetometer searches.

Why did the federal court rely on Wikipedia instead of government documents?

Richards does not offer a reason for the trend. However, he wrote, “Surely issues concerning national security, free speech, and unreasonable searches and seizures should command more deference and attention.”


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