Rule 18.2: Comments on Bluebook Citation to Internet Resources

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Category: Legal Practice, Legal Research, Legal Scholarship, Legal Writing, Public
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Rule 18.2 in the Bluebook governs citation to sources and information available on the Internet. Although the rules in the Nineteenth Edition provide significantly more guidance on the subject than the general principles articulated in the Eighteenth Edition, citation to Internet sources remains a source of confusion for many legal writers. Until the editors release the Twentieth Edition and its inevitable alterations to Rule 18.2, here are a few tips and reminders about citation to Internet resources.

Available at. Perhaps the most confusing aspect of Internet citation, citations to Internet sources need the available at explanatory phrase only under limited circumstances. The key thing to remember when using available at is that the explanatory phrase actually introduces a parallel citation to related authority (governed by rule 1.6); therefore, available at differs from direct citation to Internet sources (governed by 18.2.2). Rather, under rule 18.2.1(c), you should use available at to introduce a URL that “would substantially improve access to the relevant information.” Such a focus on access is consistent with rule 1.6(a)(iii), which allows the use of phrases like available at to direct readers to related authorities in order “to aid in locating the primary work or to provide relevant information not reflected in the primary citation.” Rule 18.2.3(a) also adds the clarification that you should use parallel references to a URL for Internet sources with content identical to the content in the printed version.

Usernames. If a posting on a website identifies an author by username, rather than by name, and you are creating a direct citation to the site, then “cite using the username of the poster.” Rule 18.2.2(a).

Dates and Times. When available, rule 18.2.2(c) requires that you should provide date information “that refer[s] clearly to the material cited” after the main page information but before the URL. Look for the date specifically attached to the article or other posting to which you want to cite. If available, you should also add the timestamp to the date parenthetical. Timestamps are particularly helpful when citing to blogs and comments, since these kinds of sources change more frequently than formal articles. Notably, you should use “last visited” and “last modified” parentheticals that appear after the URL only as a secondary option if the site content does not clearly include a date.

Statute Dates. Although the Bluebook prefers citation to official versions of statutes and codes (rule 12.2.1(a)), rule 18.3.2 describes the appropriate way to format a date parenthetical when citing an unofficial electronic version of a statute available through a database like Lexis or Westlaw. According to rule 18.3.2, when citing to an electronic database version of a code, you should “give parenthetically the name of the database and information regarding the currency of the database as provided by the database itself (rather than the year of the code according to rule 12.3.2).” Among the examples illustrating proper formatting for this parenthetical, the Bluebook includes the following citation to an unofficial version of the Wisconsin Statutes: “Wis. Stat. Ann. § 19.43 (West, Westlaw through 1995 Act 26).”

Videos. While rule 18.6 provides guidance for citations to films, television programming, and other video materials, the rule redirects you to rule 18.2.2 for citation to videos posted to websites like YouTube. As a result, the rules for direct citation to Internet sources—including the rules governing date parentheticals and usernames discussed above—apply for citation to online videos as well.

Persistent Availability. Rule 18.2.2 introduces direct citation to Internet sources by making clear that “[a]ll efforts should be made to cite to the most stable electronic location available.” This is not a simple requirement. As Adam Liptak observed in the New York Times last fall, a significant number of hyperlinks that appear in opinions from the Supreme Court no longer work. Broken links can undermine the authority supporting an assertion, as Liptak demonstrates by linking to this page, where the domain ownership has changed (and the site’s content along with it) since Justice Alito referred to the site in an opinion in 2011. Although some people are beginning to develop solutions to the problem of disappearing hyperlinks, legal writers should be aware that—at present—citations to website may not provide stable or permanent support for their assertions.

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