Fuzzy Zoeller is suing Wikipedia.

Well, at least, he wishes he could.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that Fuzzy Zoeller is suing a Florida-based consulting company for vandalizing his Wikipedia profile.  The paragraph in question has since been removed from both Wikipedia and Answers.com (which draws lots of its info from Wikipedia articles), but according to the Smoking Gun, the entry included false information about Zoeller abusing alcohol and drugs as well as physically abusing his family.

Zoeller, known for his slightly unorthodox temperament on the golf course, is known for being a jokester.  Example: check out these comments in a 2001 interview with Golf Digest:

Did any fellow competitor ever ask you to tone down the joking around? I've heard some guys say that you were a little difficult to play with.
Don't care. Tell them to speed up. Get ahead of me.

Some guys don't like the crowd getting into it, saying it affects their play.
Tell them to go look in the mirror. I don't hit their shots for them. Like firing caddies out here–caddies never hit a shot out here; what are you firing the caddie for? I haven't had a caddie in 27 years who ever hit a shot for me. I know they'd like to, but it's never happened.

You used to joke that your prescription for the bad back was "vodka and Advil."
You gotta tell 'em something. I do take a lot of Advil. But only when I'm on the road. When I'm home, I'm off.

Is vodka still your drink?
I'll even drink a few beers now and then. But then I might go home and not have anything for two or three weeks, a month.

A lot of the great characters in golf history–Hagen, Demaret–enjoyed their beverages.
That was a little before my time. Back then that was how all the guys played; they carried flasks in their bags. There's nothing wrong with that.

It's changed a lot over the years.
Yeah, but what else did you have to do back then? Think about it.

Now there's the fitness kick on tour.
The last five years, everybody feels that they gotta look their best out there.

Has that hit you yet?
Look at me! [Laughs.] I tell you, every time I get the idea of working out, I have to sit down until the thought leaves. I don't want to go out there and sweat. [Laughs.] Seriously, if I had a good spine, I'd probably do it. But I have no spine.

Even though Zoeller often made jokes like this in the past, there is a huge difference between joking around about vodka and advil and publishing malicious and damaging remarks about someone's character in a public environment.  Zoeller claims that the comments made about him on Wikipedia caused him "mental anguish" and "loss of income".

This brings me back to my original purpose in writing this post.  What kind of protection do people have against slander and defamation on sites like Wikipedia?  Not much.  In its disclaimers, Wikipedia clearly does not take any responsibility for the content that appears in the open-source encyclopedia.  It seems like the site is invincible: since most articles are written/edited by individuals not associated with the website, the encyclopedia is not necessarily responsible for the information that is published on its pages. As Fuzzy Zoeller discovered, you can't sue Wikipedia!

Wikipedia Disclaimer:

None of the contributors, sponsors, administrators, or anyone else connected with Wikipedia in any way whatsoever can be responsible for the appearance of any inaccurate or libelous information or for your use of the information contained in or linked from these web pages.

Since Zoeller and his lawyers can't touch the website legally, the pro golfer has approached the source of the comments.  By identifying the IP address of the original "vandalism", it was discovered the the comments came from a computer at Josef Silny & Associates, a Miami-based consulting firm.  Zoeller is suing the consulting firm in order to "put a stop to this. Otherwise, we're all just victims of the Internet vandals out there. They ought not to be able to act with impunity ."

Zoeller's defense team is right. Online users should not be able to slander whoever and whatever they want on the Web with no recourse for punishment.  But should Zoeller be able to sue an entire company for something that most likely only involved one employee in non-business-related activity?  I'm not sure.  In addition, Should people like Zoeller be so concerned with false information appearing on a site that everyone knows provides unreliable information in the first place?  I'm not sure about that either.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said in response to this event, "We try to police [Wikipedia entries] pretty closely, but people do misbehave on the Internet."

I think that situations like the "Zoeller Incident" speak to the structure of Wikipedia.  While having an open-source encyclopedia is in theory a great (if not utopian) idea, I think that the site needs a better system of identifying individual editors.  That way, individuals could be held responsible if they purposely publish false or damaging information to the encyclopedia, possibly discouraging the publishing of malicious or false content to begin with. 

Also, should people be able to sue Wikipedia?  It seems strange to me that just because of a few disclaimers, the site is free of any responsibility of the material that shows up online.  If a Wikipedia article is the source of a reputation-killing piece of false information, should the site's owners have to take some responsibility?  I think to some degree, they should.

I'd be really interested to see what other people have to say about this, so please feel free to chime in with your opinions.