Libel Lawsuit Over Wikipedia Edits,

as reported by Ed Brayton in The Michigan Messenger:

Longtime Ingham County Commissioner and Michigan political consultant Mark Grebner has filed a defamation lawsuit in Ingham County Circuit Court against three men for allegedly editing false and defamatory information into his biographical entry on Wikipedia.

The three defendants are Dennis Lennox, a Central Michigan University student who received a great deal of attention over the last few years for a string of politically-charged incidents on that campus and was elected Cheboygan County drain commissioner last year; Bradley Dennis, a member of the Michigan State University College Republicans who ran an unsuccessful campaign against Grebner for the Ingham County Commission last fall; and MSU sophomore Anthony Giammarinaro.

The three are accused of editing Grebner's Wikipedia entry to include information that Grebner, a Democrat, argues is false and libelous....

The lawsuit is not against Wikipedia itself, so there isn't any 47 U.S.C. § 230 problem. In many ways, it's a traditional libel lawsuit against the alleged authors of the libel. Still, it seems to be one of the first lawsuits filed against people who have written or edited Wikipedia entries, so I thought I'd note it. Many thanks to Jason Miller for the pointer.

Mark Grebner won election as a county commissioner on the slogan, "No Worse Than The Rest." I always liked that.
7.9.2009 1:49pm
DiverDan (mail):
I haven't heard the name Mark Grebner in ages - He was at Michigan State University at the same time I was there, as the Graduate Advisor for the 4th Floor of South Case Hall in 72-73, where I lived as a Freshman. He was a VERY strange bird - incredibly intelligent (though his Bridge play really sucked -- he never did get the notion that your bidding was actually supposed to communicate to your partner), but with some really bizarre political theories. Interesting. As an elected official, it seems he would have some rather high hurdles to jump to establish a libel claim.
7.9.2009 1:54pm
pete (mail) (www):
The three libel defemations are all pretty different, with one beiong obvious defemation (claiming he was convicted of child molestation), one being borderline (claiming he was a homosexual), and the third one does not look like defemation at all (most of it is an opinion about his views on taxing and spending, unless they were clearly false/intentional misquotes).

I hope he wins on the obvious one, but without more deatil the third looks like a mere difference of opinion and should probably be protected speech.
7.9.2009 2:01pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Given the regularity with which many people are reminded that Wikipedia is not authoritative, because any idiot can edit it, I wonder if the defendants will try to claim that putting derogatory (and false) information on Wikipedia can't really be defamatory, because no reasonable person would believe anything they read on Wikipedia.

From a quick skim-through of the article, I hope Grebner wins. One of the defendants wrote that Grebner was a homosexual. That, of course, raises the question of whether calling somebody (falsely) a homosexual is defamatory. Certainly 10 or 20 years ago, there would be no doubt of that. And in reality, it is still insulting, at least, in the eyes of a great many straight men, to be called gay, whether there's anything wrong with that or not. How much should defamation law reflect what is actually defamatory, as opposed to what modern thinking declares should be defamatory (or not)?

Here's a thought experiment on that subject... suppose Congressman X, a Democrat, is running for reelection. An opponent falsely says that Rep. X is the most liberal member of the House, with a rating from the Americans for Democratic Action of 100 (while in reality, Rep. X's ADA score is, say, 60). Assume for the hypothetical that we can establish actual malice (an active desire to harm X's reelection efforts) and damages (enough moderates believed the lie that it cost X the election). Is that "defamatory" under libel law? Or would we say that calling someone a "liberal" or a "conservative" is inherently non-defamatory under any circumstances?

Would Grebner's personal situation matter at all in the determination of whether being called gay is defamatory? Would it matter if he, say, worked in a field where being gay would probably cost him a lot of clients? For example, if his main line of business was political consulting for candidates supported by the religious right, might it be considered defamatory, but not so if he works primarily among liberal Democrats in San Francisco?

The second allegedly defamatory statement at first glance looks to me like it's within the realm of legitimate (if distasteful) political discourse. The most questionable statement says that Grebner, in response to a city budget deficit, "commented... that he would like to continue to increase taxes rather then [sic] reform government." It purports to paraphrase his comment, rather than quote it, but I could imagine some circumstances where what he actually said might be so different from a paraphrase as to be actionable. But many of us, as a rhetorical technique, often use such phrasings to say what we think the speaker was secretly meaning, along the lines of those occasional internet jokes where you have 2 columns, labeled "What he [the government, the wife, whatever] says" and "What he really means."

The final allegedly defamatory statement seems like a pretty open and shut case. It states flatly that Grebner had been convicted "on three counts of sexually abusing children." That's clearly defamatory under any interpretation, and I presume that it has no basis in fact whatsoever. The individual accused of inserting that statement is a university sophomore, so he'll likely try to claim he was just being a stupid kid. Even stupid kids, however, should know better than to falsely accuse someone of child molestation in this day and age. I'm thinking his only hope of skating is if it can't be categorically pinned down, through IP tracing, that he was the one who inserted that statement.
7.9.2009 2:14pm
rosetta's stones:
Wait a minute, the guy who claimed he was a child molester also said Bin Laden was his biggest supporter. That ain't obvious libel... in fact I laughed out loud on that one. Comedy ain't illegal... not yet at least. Use Wiki at your peril.

Those are/were just stupid MSU students, and Grebner is gonna draw this sorta stuff, as he's always been a gadfly.

Diver, you're bringing back memories, I can almost scent the mj wafting down teh dorm hallway.
7.9.2009 2:14pm
"Cheboygan County drain commissioner" is a great title for elected office.

PatHMV, I vaguely recall a case from somewhere in the First Circuit holding that it's not defamatory to falsely call someone a homosexual, but I'm having trouble locating the case.
7.9.2009 2:20pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
rosetta's stones... the bit about Bin Laden is indeed probably sufficiently obviously humor that it will be safe. But I don't see anything funny in the statement about him being convicted three times of sexually abusing children. Why would you think that somebody's first reaction to seeing that is that it's just a joke? It's not like it was all one run-on sentence, like "Grebner was convicted of molesting children AND his biggest supporter was Osama Bin Laden." The average Wikipedia user would not know, just reading the main page, that the picture of Bin Laden was inserted by the same "jokester" who inserted the child molestation accusation. You would only be able to tell by looking closely in the "history" tab to see who had made both edits.

I don't care if they were stupid students, high on dope. They're still responsible for their actions, and it is exceedingly irresponsible to falsely claim that somebody is a child molester. That's the kind of thing that can stick to somebody know matter what the truth really is.
7.9.2009 2:30pm
rosetta's stones:
Ok, here's an interesting and negative take on Wiki, and some choice edits that it cites:

For nearly 11 hours, the Wikipedia article about McCain said that he "is also know to have sucked a few cocks in his life as well". The page was viewed about 14,115 times in this condition before it was corrected.

Schoolyard kids run around calling each other "fag" and "gay", and we're now gonna run to court over it?! Please.

For over 135 hours, the Wikipedia article about Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska said that he "attended Redondo Union High School, participating in kinky sex adventures.". The page was viewed about 3,132 times in this condition before it was corrected.

What, you mean that one's not true?!

For over 70 hours, the Wikipedia article about Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said that she "is the only member of the [[Texas Super Justice League]] capable of feeling human emotions.". The page was viewed about 677 times in this condition before it was corrected.

Come on, man, that one's just flat-out funny!

For over 56 hours, the Wikipedia article about Senator Harry Reid of Nevada said that he was "married to his right hand". The page was viewed about 1,383 times in this condition before it was corrected.


Come on, Grebner wasn't harmed by this foolishness. I hope the judge dropkicks this lawsuit into the Red Cedar River where it belongs
7.9.2009 2:39pm
Assume for the hypothetical that we can establish actual malice (an active desire to harm X's reelection efforts)

So far as libel law is concerned, the term "actual malice" does not bear anything particularly resembling its literal meaning; rather, a speaker acts with actual malice if he makes a false statement with either (a) knowledge that the statement is false or (b) reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the statement. The speaker's intentions and motivations are irrelevant to the actual malice inquiry.
7.9.2009 2:47pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
You don't see any differences between those obvious pranks, characterizing somebody's sexual habits, and stating flatly that someone was convicted three times of sexually abusing children?

If the edit has said something like "plus, he really likes little boys!", then I might agree with your point. But that's not what the stupid little sophomore (if he is indeed the one who made that edit) said. Plus, a college sophomore is hardly a "schoolyard kid."
7.9.2009 2:49pm
rosetta's stones:
"Why would you think that somebody's first reaction to seeing that is that it's just a joke? It's not like it was all one run-on sentence, like "Grebner was convicted of molesting children AND his biggest supporter was Osama Bin Laden." The average Wikipedia user would not know..."

Pat, if the average Wiki user doesn't know by now that it's a bullsh!t source of information, that's too bad, but we can't waste the court's time worrying about their lack of knowledge.

If these kids committed libel, fine, but I suspect this is just another lawyerly fishing expedition.

And I think those edits are for the most part hilarious.

Which is to be expected in such a source... hilarity... and other things, maybe.

Alex Rodriguez raped Sarah Palin's daughter at Yankee Stadium, remember? I heard it on television. That was funny, too, I understand. Any lawsuits there?
7.9.2009 2:50pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Thank you for the lesson in basic libel law, Anon21. Of course, I remember it fairly well from my law school days. Please do forgive me for not being 100% accurate in summarizing a basic point which I was trying to draw the focus AWAY from, to focus on what I find was the more interesting question.
7.9.2009 2:51pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
rosetta's stones, wasn't that my initial point in my first comment in this thread? Perhaps the defense that "everybody knows that Wikipedia is regularly trashed and vandalized by stupid school kids, so no reasonable person would believe any word written there" is valid. But of course that's not what Wikipedia itself purports to be, a source intended primarily for humor and amusement.

Are you saying you see no fundamental difference between a (moronic) late night comedian making a tasteless joke on a show which is advertised and claims to be nothing more than comedy and making a statement claiming to be fact on a web site that at least claims to be a legitimate, serious source of information?
7.9.2009 2:55pm
rosetta's stones:
Pat, I don't give a flying fuqq what Wiki claims itself to be. I care about what it is. If you or anybody else thinks it's something other than that, that's your problem, and not the taxpayers'.
7.9.2009 3:00pm
Thank you for the lesson in basic libel law, Anon21. Of course, I remember it fairly well from my law school days. Please do forgive me for not being 100% accurate in summarizing a basic point which I was trying to draw the focus AWAY from, to focus on what I find was the more interesting question.

Well, my apologies for not knowing that you're an attorney, or that you knew the proper definition of the term. I was only trying to be helpful.

I vaguely recall a case from somewhere in the First Circuit holding that it's not defamatory to falsely call someone a homosexual, but I'm having trouble locating the case.

I don't know if this is the case you're referring to, but a very similar First Circuit opinion was actually linked in the article about Grebner's suit: Amrak Productions v. Morton. However, the panel's rationale actually seems to be that in the context of the book at issue, no reasonable reader could conclude from the information given that the plaintiff was in fact homosexual, and thus that there was no need to reach the question of whether or not an imputation of homosexual orientation was or was not defamation per se under Massachusetts libel law. The court below apparently did reach that question, however, and answered it in the negative.
7.9.2009 3:06pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Where do the taxpayers come in? They're not on the hook for any of this. The losing litigant will pay the costs of court, which covers a lot of the expenses of keeping the courthouse open and providing a forum for people to redress the grievances they have with each other. Other than that fairly minuscule cost, the taxpayers aren't involved at all.
7.9.2009 3:15pm
DiverDan (mail):

Diver, you're bringing back memories, I can almost scent the mj wafting down teh dorm hallway.

No Lie! Especially in East Lansing in the early 70's, where toking a Joint while walking down Grand River Avenue on a busy afternoon might (but only might, if the Cop was feeling ambitious) get you a ticket with a whopping $5 fine!
Our wing of South Case Hall was officially named "Cannabis House", and the name did fit. My parents worried about it when I moved to the Fraternity as a sophomore, but there was a whole lot less drug use (if you don't count alchohol) in the Fraternity than in any of the dorms.
7.9.2009 3:17pm
DiverDan (mail):
I went back &looked at the libel claims, and they brought back a memory from '72, when Mark Grebner (working from the dorm) was supporting an MSU Student for a local political post - I think it was East Lansing City Council. He put out radio ads for the candidate where the end line was "This Ad Paid for by Necrophiliacs for [Candidate Name]." His explanation was that it didn't really matter what you said about a candidate - that more than 90% of voters decided based on name recognition only, so as long as you kept repeating their name, it was good for the candidate. Seems relevant here.
7.9.2009 3:25pm
rosetta's stones:
Pat, although I doubt the costs the losing party pays are all inclusive, and thus the taxpayers will bear some of the cost of this lawsuit and others like it, I have no problem with 2 people settling their grievances. You've introduced a 3rd party, however, Wiki, and maybe a 4th, a general public interest in Wiki. Neither merits inclusion here, imo.

Yeah, D, Cannabis House likely fit any number of dorms, and mine was coed by suite, with 18 year old drinking age, and keggers right in dorm rooms. I marvel at that recipe, to this day. FYI, this is not the wisest combination for your children, parents!
7.9.2009 3:46pm
Even if "everyone knows" that Wikipedia is full of falsehoods, the same group knows that it has a fair amount of truth as well. Parody/satire is a fine and important defense, but it doesn't mean that an unreliable source can't defame.

As for calling someone "gay", it's certainly defamatory if the subject holds himself out otherwise - he's being called a liar.
7.9.2009 5:00pm
NickM (mail) (www):
The issue of a libel based on a false assertion as to sexual orientation makes a great law review topic for student notes. For most of American history, it was an accusation of matters that were criminal in some states, but now, is there any principled difference between such a libel and a false assertion as to someone's race? [There are cases on that dating back 2 centuries.]

7.9.2009 6:58pm
Gregory Kohs (mail) (www):
@Rosetta's stones: Thank you for linking to the Wikipedia Vandalism Study about the U.S. senators. Lots of traffic coming there now, which I appreciate. I realize that you selected out some of the silliest defamations in our study, but the important point we were trying to make in showcasing those is HOW MANY EYEBALLS saw those outlandish statements, but they just kept on surfing and didn't revert them with the Edit button. Wikipedia is not as self-healing as the myth claims.

Furthermore, there were some truly borderline libelous edits in our study that you didn't mention. What about, "Menendez and Jacobsen have since divorced because he was cheating on her"? What about the unsourced claim that Gordon Smith of Oregon's "political pandering [has] been cited as possible reasons for his unusual positions". The page was viewed about 10,029 times that way.

What I think was the worst, though, was a claim on Senator Max Baucus' article (which I have discussed in more detail at that said, "Baucus admits campaign finance violations". It was all prettied up with an external link to a reliable source -- but the newspaper source NEVER SAID ANY SUCH THING about Max Baucus! Guess how long that edit stood in place, informing about 220 readers per day in the month leading up to the election? It stood for ELEVEN MONTHS, Rosetta.

This isn't a laughing matter. Wikipedia is paid for by tax-deductible dollars to fulfill a mission to publish educational information to the public. If they're failing that mission because of this grossly overwrought fixation on "the free culture movement", then I think it's high time authorities step in and recommend some changes to how information is vetted on Wikipedia. I am sick of it being used primarily as an online defamation platform, and I think it's fitting that someone using a pseudonym with no link to a real identity would just think it's all knee-slapper funny. It's not. Read my Akahele article.
7.10.2009 12:29am
Mark N. (www):

I think it's high time authorities step in and recommend some changes to how information is vetted on Wikipedia

If I can think of one system guaranteed to produce a worse encyclopedia than Wikipedia's "anyone can edit" method, it'd be whatever you get after the government steps in to "recommend" a replacement. Fortunately, the government seems unlikely to take up the invitation to start editing Wikipedia policy pages, and 47 U.S.C. ยง 230 largely shields the site itself from suit.
7.10.2009 6:24am
rosetta's stones:

I commend you on exposing Wiki as the charade it is, at least who still at this late date aren't aware of that fact, but I'm still gonna laugh at their hilarity. And, I don't care how many other eyeballs eyeball the hilarity unknowingly, because it's impossible to fully educate people, as we know.

You're complaining because they post falsehoods? Hey, get in line. Get in line on this blog, too. Some, not all or even most of these law proffys post falsehoods all the time. It's the internets, man. Read at your own risk. Just like newspapers, tv, and everything else.

Suggest you fight to remove Wiki's tax deduction. Somebody's making money off that business, and no reason to give it a tax subsidy.
7.10.2009 9:14am
Jon Awbrey (www):
Re: "It's the internets, man. Read at your own risk. Just like newspapers, tv, and everything else."

No, Wikipedia is *not" just like newspapers, TV, and everything else. Ask Dan Rather and Connie Chung, just for starters.

If Wikipedia were still sliming about in the Blecchhh Lagoon Of The Usenet out from which it ab-originally slunk, or even advertised itself as the Free Speech Chat Room that it really is, then folks like me would probably be arguing on the ACLU side of the fence.


And nothing about Free Speech makes it okay for people to violate Truth In Advertising and Fraud Laws and sell "Icantbelieveit'snotbutt,er" as Butter.
7.10.2009 10:08am
rosetta's stones:
Jon, you may not recognize Wiki as sliming about on the internets, but that's in fact what it's doing. All of us know that. And if we don't, it's our own fault, because it means that we're stupid. Stupid enough to subsidize them, as Greg helpfully points out.

How they advertise themselves is immaterial. They're down in the slime with all of the other internet slime denizens. We adjudge, upon every mouseclick, whether one of the denizens has risen up and shaken off enough slime to be of value to us. No need for you to try to do that adjudging for us, because you likely can't.

I'm too dense to see your point re Rather and Chung. Can you explain that a bit more?
7.10.2009 10:42am
Jon Awbrey (www):
Wikipedia gets most of its unearned credibility by exploiting specific flaws in the way the Internet, Search Engines, and People's Minds work.

Those of us who want Information Technology and Social Media to work better than they do at present are concerned to point out those flaws and to suggest better alternatives.

That's what Education, Information, and Inquiry are all about.
7.10.2009 11:24am
rosetta's stones:
That's what Education, Information, and Inquiry are all about.

No problem with you making your specific contribution to the slime, Jon. And my guess is yours probably rises up out of the slime often enough to make it valuable to us often.

But good luck trying to change the way people's minds work!
7.10.2009 12:05pm
Larry Fafarman (mail) (www):
Wikipedia's posting of the IP addresses of editors who don't use Wikipedia user-ID's is pointless -- it does not even serve the purpose of identification because the incoming IP addresses are often subject to change.

Accessing and publishing IP addresses are illegal or frowned upon in Europe [link] and are arguably illegal in California [link].

Ordinary editors are not Wikipedia's biggest problem -- the biggest problem are Wikipedia administrators who deliberately post false information and then lock up the articles to block out changes and rebuttals.
7.12.2009 4:08pm

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