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We couldn't have told you this, but Wikipedia was censored: Should we break the law or publish the truth?


Cardinal George Pell in 2012

A high official of an unnamed religious organisation had a negative result in a court proceeding involving some young men in a land known as Downunder or Oz.

No, The Signpost is not practising how to say as little as possible in as many words as possible, but several Australian news sources had to invent even more ridiculous text and headlines to try to inform their readers of major news they were blocked from publishing. Wikipedia was cited, but not charged, for contempt of an Australian court's gag order. Thirty-six non-Wikipedian individuals and organisations were actually charged.

Since February, we have been free to say that, on 11 December 2018, a jury unanimously found George Pell guilty of raping and sexually abusing two 13-year-old boys in the 1990s. This was big news, not just in Australia but internationally; sexual abuse of women and children by Catholic clergy has been a scandal on four continents, and Pell is a cardinal, one of the highest-ranking bishops in the church. And not just any cardinal; at the time of his conviction, Pell was a member of the Council of Cardinal Advisers, and the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, a post akin to the Vatican's treasurer. He was not just the senior Catholic in Australia, but one of the highest-ranking in the world.

Pell was still facing charges in another case involving teenage boys, so to avoid the jury in that second case being influenced by the verdict in the first, Victorian County Court chief judge Peter Kidd placed a non-publication order on all of the evidence and the verdict in Pell's trial. The use of these orders is more common in the state of Victoria than the rest of Australia; some 443 were issued there in 2018, compared with 456 in the rest of the country. The suppression order applied "in all Australian states and territories" and "on any website or other electronic or broadcast format accessible within Australia". This clearly included Wikipedia.

In Australia there is no constitutional right to free speech. The High Court ruled that there is a right to political free speech (although it recently ruled that it is not a personal right, and that government workers can be fired for anonymously criticising government policies online), but other forms of speech are not covered. In particular, commercial speech is not covered. Even countries that do have sweeping freedom of speech provisions often have protections for a defendant's right to a fair trial that can override the right to free speech; courts worldwide are attached to the fair-trial principle.

The court's gag order left news media organisations understandably frustrated. Some international media organisations, including The Washington Post and The Daily Beast, went ahead and published the story online, regardless. Neither had reporters on the scene.

On Wikipedia, an IP user in Canada made an edit of 12 December changing Pell's description to add "and convicted sex offender", with a reference to the Daily Beast article. This sparked a flurry of edits, and within four hours the article was protected for "violations of the biographies of living persons policy". There was a weird discussion on the WikiProject Australia talk page in a section titled "Article about a topic covered by a suppression order" that left some people scratching their heads wondering what those in the know were talking about. Wikimedia Legal was informed. We left an audit trail for prosecutors to follow if they wished.

Editing was not restricted to the English-language Wikipedia. The French was updated on 17 December, noting that a jury had found the cardinal guilty. This edit was reverted as "non fiable" (unreliable). Not so on the German language Wikipedia, where the edit remained. That the story was up on Wikipedia, at least for a while, was noted by the court, and by Pell's defence lawyers (hoping perhaps to get the second trial thrown out on those grounds).

Some media organisations, including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, responded by reporting on the gag order, saying that there was a big story about a prominent Australian convicted of a heinous crime, and that they couldn't report on it. The Melbourne Herald Sun ran a black front page with the headline "CENSORED" in bold type. The court was not amused by this either. At the time, I simply googled "big story about a prominent Australian convicted of a heinous crime" and up it came, complete with links to The Washington Post and Wikipedia. The George Pell article's talk page erupted with the heading "Conviction of Sexual Offences Against Children and Suppression Order in Victorian County Court".

As already noted, our BLP rules were not violated, as Pell was indeed convicted of a crime. Nor was there a problem with the sources, which were reliable and had indeed correctly reported the case. But "using the services in a manner that is inconsistent with applicable law" is a violation of our terms of use. So Wikipedians posting about the case could, theoretically, have been facing a ban from the site.

Fortunately, although Wikipedia was among the organisations cited for contempt, neither Wikimedia nor individual editors were charged. Some 23 individuals and 13 media organisations were not so lucky. Organisations included the The Herald and Weekly Times, Fairfax Media and Nine Entertainment. Individuals included Deborah Knight, Michael Bachelard and Ray Hadley

The second case never went ahead, and the gag order was lifted on 26 February 2019. All the while, the English Wikipedia had the story on the article page. With the official news release, the article recorded 150,249 page views in February and 231,295 in March 2019, more than double the 104,231 in December 2018. So while suppression orders are easily circumvented in the internet age, they are not completely ineffective.

Pell lost his appeal against his conviction in August 2019. His legal team is currently preparing an appeal to the High Court of Australia. If unsuccessful, he is likely to be transferred to the Hopkins Correctional Centre in Ararat, Victoria, where many paedophile priests are currently held.

What can we take away from this? It isn't the first time something like this has happened, and it won't be the last. Recall the case of Rémi Mathis, who was compelled to delete a Wikipedia article under threat of detention and criminal charges in 2013. We cannot assume that the law will not come after Wikipedians as individuals or WMF as an organisation. There are signs around the world of an impending crackdown on social media sites, given the recent behaviour of Facebook and Twitter.

We need to heed this as a wake-up call and put appropriate procedures and guidelines in place.