Victory in the US: court dismisses Lomax v. Wikimedia Foundation

Inclusivity is one of the core values of the Wikimedia movement. Wikimedia is an online educational resource to which anyone is welcome to contribute. However, to ensure safe participation for everyone, there are times when the Wikimedia Foundation or Wikimedia’s volunteer communities find it necessary to block individuals whose contributions for one reason or another cause disruptions to the projects or communities.

The image shows a rock feature called the Azure Window in Gozo, Malta, as waves crash against the coast.
Malta, Gozo, Azure Window (Image by Berthold Werner under CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In 2019, the Foundation was sued by one such blocked individual in the Federal District of Massachusetts, and this month, the case Lomax v. Wikimedia has been dismissed with prejudice. This means that a federal judge found no basis for Mr. Lomax to sue the Foundation. We consider this a significant victory for the protection of transparent community governance.

Mr. Lomax’s dispute centered around the fact that his username — a pseudonym he had adopted to edit on our sites — was publicly listed as a globally banned user. As explained at our Office Action policy, the Wikimedia Foundation does this on those rare occasions when it bans people from using our projects. The user names of banned persons then go onto a public log recorded on a page on metawiki, where volunteer contributors discuss issues around their projects. We do this because this information allows our communities to be aware of all such actions the Foundation has taken. It also allows the user communities to help keep the projects safe, such as by finding sockpuppet accounts that the Foundation may not notice.

Mr. Lomax argued that by making this information public, the Foundation was defaming him. The core of his argument was that even though the fact of the ban was true, the Foundation bans so few people that he claimed the ban implied he had done something very awful, beyond any wrongdoing he believed he had committed. Out of respect to Mr. Lomax’s privacy, we do not intend to go into any details of the ban, but we want to explain why we feel the result in this case is significant.

Wikipedia and other open source projects for peer production rely on transparent processes and procedures for almost everything they do. Content is crafted publicly; discussions about what information belongs and does not belong can be read by anyone. With few exceptions, anyone can trace the history of an article on Wikipedia to see what it looked like at a given time or who changed it in what direction. This same transparency applies to the governance of online collaboration and includes the public documentation of sanctions and decisions around user conduct.

While we understand that this publication may have frustrated Mr. Lomax, we believe that the court reached the right decision by dismissing the case. By holding that the publication of the fact of the ban is not defamatory, the court ensured that the Foundation will continue to be able to give the communities a transparent log of its interventions, helping to provide accountability as well as supporting the community in keeping content accurate and others safe.

Jacob Rogers, Senior Legal Counsel, Wikimedia Foundation

We also wish to express our sincere gratitude to our counsel from Jones Day, Chris Morrison and Erik Doughty for their thoughtful and skilled handling of this case over the past year and a half. - Stories by Wikimedia's Public Policy Team: Stephen LaPorte, Allison Davenport, Sherwin Siy, and Jan Gerlach.