A parochial high school in Omaha, Neb., has filed a lawsuit over comments introduced during the editing of a posting on Wikipedia, the online, publicly compiled encyclopedia.
Administrators at VJ and Angela Skutt Catholic High School take a dim view of these and other lines about the school:
“It’s [sic] tuition is ridiculously high, too. Not to mention you get an awful education there. They put more emphasis on sports than they do education. No wonder almost all kids there are complete idiots.”
That opinion showed up in June on www.wikipedia.org. And Skutt officials say there have been three other objectionable entries since February. They include sharp criticism of Skutt Principal Patrick Slattery, obscene language, and a note about drug use by students.
The offending entries since have been removed from the site.
Since Wikipedia debuted in 2001, it has grown to two and a half million entries in 10 languages.
Thousands of changes are made every hour to Wikipedia items, and contributors are charged with editing themselves and others. All viewers need do to change an entry is click “edit this page” and do so.
Skutt officials can’t tell who posted the entries they’ve zeroed in on, so the Douglas County, Neb., District Court suit names a John and Jane Doe.
The internet addresses belong to Cox Communications, and a spokeswoman said the company intends to comply with a subpoena for the names of the posters.
Whether the Skutt lawsuit will prevail is uncertain, because the complaint involves the inherent conflict between free speech and damaging opinion in the usually anonymous realm of cyberspace.
“The law is a mixed bag right now,” said John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “I can understand how anybody feels pain, but it’s still a very difficult row to hoe.”
Seigenthaler, a one-time administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy, complained in an op-ed piece published in USA Today last November that a biography of him on Wikipedia claimed he had been suspected in the assassinations of the former attorney general and his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
Seigenthaler said it took about four months to get the erroneous information about him removed.
The Skutt lawsuit says the school has suffered general damages that would be determined at trial.
“These particular edits were really harmful and mean-spirited,” said Patrick Flood, a lawyer for Skutt.
Once Skutt officials find out who posted the entries and why, they will proceed accordingly, he said.
Federal law protects online service providers.
“They are just the vehicle” for other people’s information, said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Basically, the more control you have [over the information], the more risk you have.”
On its site, Wikipedia tells users that “it is a valuable resource and provides a good reference point.” But, it says, “unfamiliar information should be checked before relying upon it.”
Inappropriate comments often are removed, said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in an eMail interview with the Omaha World-Herald newspaper.
He said such postings are rare, however, and he wondered why Skutt officials hadn’t contacted him directly.
As of press time, the Wikipedia entry for Skutt Catholic High School contained the following note: “Due to previous vandalism, editing of this article by anonymous or newly registered users is disabled … Such users may discuss changes, request unprotection, or create an account.”
VJ and Angela Skutt Catholic High School
Skutt’s Wikipedia listing