Nov 112009
 November 11, 2009  Court, Featured News

David Kravets writes:

Wikipedia is under a censorship attack by a convicted German murderer invoking his country’s privacy laws in a bid to remove references to him killing Bavarian actor Walter Sedlmayr in 1990.

Lawyers for Wolfgang Werle, of Erding Germany, sent Wikipedia a cease-and-desist letter (.pdf) demanding the free encyclopedia remove Werle’s name from its entry on the actor he and his half-brother killed. The lawyers cite German court rulings that “have held that our client’s name and likeness cannot be used any more in publication regarding Mr. Sedlmayr’s death.”

German media have already ceased using the Werle’s full name regarding the attack. Jennifer Granick, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says German publications must also alter their online archives in a bid to comport with laws designed to provide offenders an avenue to “reintegrate back into society.”

“It’s not just censorship going forward. It’s asking outlets to go back and change what is already being written,” Granick said in a telephone interview.

Read more on Threat Level.

So now what? Although Kravets describes this as a “censorship attack,” and many here would likely agree with that characterization, the German law firm, Stopp & Stopp, are described as a pro-privacy law firm. And while the German approach to privacy in attempting to reintegrate the convicted killers is thought-provoking and might merit some voluntary support, the lawyers’ letter to San-Francisco-based WikiMedia Foundation seems to assert that we are all subject to German law, an approach that raises this Brooklyn-born blogger’s hackles:


As your article deals with a local German public figure (such as the actor Walter Sedlmayr), we expect you are aware that you have to comply with applicable German law.

German law provides that our client is not a public figure after many year have passed [sic] since the crime. The German courts including several Courts of Appeals, have held that our client’s name and likeness cannot be used any more in publication regarding Mr. Sedlmayr’s death (cf. e.g. Nuremburg Court of Appeals Judgment dated December 12, 2006, File No. 3 U 2023/06, published in Magazindienst 2007, 313-31,OLGR Nuremberg 2007, 227,ZUM-RD 2007, 133-134 and Court of Appeals Frankfurt, Judgment dated February 6, 2007, File. No. 11 U 51/06).

Our client is currently litigating against you in the trial court of Hamburg (file no. 324 O 740/07).

We therefore ask you to sign the attached cease and desist declaration, which is a binding commitment under German law. In case you do not sign the cease and desist declaration, we are authorized to pursue all available remedies against you.

You are also obligated to pay for our client’s attorney’s fees under applicable German law.

Jennifer Granick of the Electronic Frontier Foundation also discusses the cease and desist letter and conflict between American and German laws here.

So… does every American web site that names names in reporting this news story of public interest and import get a cease and desist letter? Do the German lawyers really intend to sue every American blog that covers this? I wonder if they’ve heard of the Streisand Effect. A search of Google News shows three stories that now name convicted murderers whereas there were none until now and over 60 results on Google web, mostly all new and in response to the legal threat.

It’s one thing to argue, as a UK court did recently, that news publications must issue corrections or go back and amend archived stories or risk losing libel protection, but does Germany really expect to be able to censor non-German publications under their privacy laws?


Futile, but amazing.

Update Nov. 13: John Schwartz of the New York Times has an article about the case. Schwartz describes the issues as others and this site see it — pitting German privacy law against our First Amendment. As a number of sites have done, Schwartz reports the convicted killers’ names.

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