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Judge spikes 'dumbest literary agent' Wikipedia suit

Cult defends free speech

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An American judge has dismissed a flimsy defamation suit against the cult of Wikipedia.

With a recent ruling (PDF), New Jersey Superior Court Judge James Perri chucked the famous Wikipedia class action brought by New York literary agent Barbara Bauer. Bauer sued Wikipedia's parent operation - the Wikimedia Foundation - at the end of January, claiming that someone had posted a list of the "20 Worst Literary Agents" to the online encyclopedia and dubbed her the list's "dumbest."

The Foundation denied Bauer's story, but it also claimed immunity under Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act. Section 230 protects net sites from liability when their users post defamatory material - even if the site is alerted to the defamation.

You can question the sanity of other American judges, but Judge Perri is among the more level headed. He's well aware of the protections laid down by Section 230. "Wikipedia is a provider and user of an 'interactive computer service' and is therefore immune from all claims asserted against it," reads his ruling.

If anything, Bauer's suit proved that the alleged material posted to Wikipedia wasn't far from the truth. "If you file a suit like this," Santa Clara University law professor and tech law blogger Eric Goldman told us this summer, "maybe you are the dumbest literary agent."

But this cut-and-dry case fueled the usual farce over on Wikipedia itself. Worried about the outcome of the case, Foundation lawyer Mike Godwin ordered Wikipedians not to reinstate the deleted article on Barbara Bauer. He even ordered editors to remove an article on the Bauer case from Wikinews, a completely separate project.

Fair enough. But Godwin was also worried that if he was seen giving orders to Wikipedians, he might invalidate the Foundation's Section 230 immunity. So, in telling Wikipedians to avoid re-posting the Bauer article, he also told them he wasn't telling them to avoid re-posting the Barbara article.

"We recently filed court papers in which we stated that the article is no longer available (as it wasn't when I filed my affidavit). It would be nice if the community didn't turn the Foundation...and me into liars," he says. "I've been trying to keep [Foundation] actions to a minimum...and it would be helpful to be able to say that any given action was taken by the community, not by the Foundation."

Likewise, after Godwin phoned those Wikinews editors and told them to remove their Bauer article, the Foundation insisted he hadn't done so.

We would argue that all this was wholly unnecessary. Even Godwin's co-counsel failed to understand his reasoning where these non-order orders were concerned. But this is Wikiland - an online comedy unlike any other. ®

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