Is Wikipedia safe from libel liability?

Online encyclopedia may have legal protection, regardless of how long an inaccurate article stays on the site. How much do you trust Wikipedia?

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, , 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.

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.

Featured Video