Stopp and Stopp Tries To Stop Wikipedia
As reported by the New York Times:
Wolfgang Werlé and Manfred Lauber became infamous for killing a German actor in 1990. Now they are suing to force Wikipedia to forget them.
The legal fight pits German privacy law against the American First Amendment. German courts allow the suppression of a criminal’s name in news accounts once he has paid his debt to society, noted Alexander H. Stopp, the lawyer for the two men, who are now out of prison.
“They should be able to go on and be resocialized, and lead a life without being publicly stigmatized” for their crime, Mr. Stopp said. “A criminal has a right to privacy, too, and a right to be left alone.”
Mr. Stopp has already successfully pressured German publications to remove the killers’ names from their online coverage. German editors of Wikipedia have scrubbed the names from the German-language version of the article about the victim, Walter Sedlmayr.
Now Mr. Stopp, in suits in German courts, is demanding that the Wikimedia Foundation, the American organization that runs Wikipedia, do the same with the English-language version of the article. That has free-speech advocates quoting George Orwell.
Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer who has represented The New York Times, said every justice on the United States Supreme Court would agree that the Wikipedia article “is easily, comfortably protected by the First Amendment.”
But Germany’s courts have come up with a different balance between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know, Mr. Abrams said, and “once you’re in the business of suppressing speech, the quest for more speech to suppress is endless.”
The German law springs from a decision of Germany’s highest court in 1973, said Julian Höppner, a lawyer with the Berlin law firm JBB who has represented the Wikimedia Foundation, though not in this case.
Publications generally comply with the law, Mr. Höppner said, by referring to “the perpetrator — or, Mr. L.” But with such a well-known case, he said, expunging the record “is difficult to accomplish — and, morally speaking, rightly so.”
The court’s goals in the 1973 decision were laudable, he said, but the logic might not be workable in the Internet age, when archival material that was legally published at the time can be called up with a simple Google search. The question of excising names from archives has not yet been resolved by the German courts, he said. …
The online encyclopedia is written and edited by armies of independent volunteers, and “if our German editors have chosen to remove the names of the murderers from their article on Walter Sedlmayr, we support them in that choice,” said Mr. Godwin, adding, “The English-language editors have chosen to include the names of the killers, and we support them in that choice.” …
Mr. Werlé, one of the killers, was released from prison in 2007, and Mr. Lauber, the other, in 2008.
Their lawyer, Mr. Stopp, contacted Wikimedia about both men, citing cases since 2006 that had suppressed publication of their names in Germany. He has won a default judgment against Wikimedia for Mr. Lauber in a German court, and last month sent the foundation a letter regarding Mr. Werlé, whose case against Wikimedia is pending.
“The German courts, including several courts of appeals, have held that our client’s name and likeness cannot be used anymore in publication regarding Mr. Sedlmayr’s death,” he wrote.
The letter included a sample agreement in which the organization would remove Mr. Werlé’s name from the article or pay a “contractual fine” of no less than 5,100 euros — about $7,600 at the current rate of exchange — “for each case of infringement,” to compensate him for “all loss and emotional suffering incurred” because of prior publication.
In a written response to Mr. Stopp, Wikimedia questioned the relevance of any judgments in the German courts, since, it said, it has no operations in Germany and no assets there.
“We’ll see,” Mr. Stopp said in an interview. In an e-mail message after the interview, he wrote, “In the spirit of this discussion, I trust that you will not mention my clients’ names in your article.”
Here’s the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s eloquent, full-throated defense of our First Amendment against encroachment by German privacy law and foreign law in general:
In 1990, Bavarian actor Walter Sedlmayr was brutally murdered. Two of his business associates were convicted, imprisoned for the crime, and recently paroled. Who killed Sedlmayr? Its a matter of public record, but if one of the men and his German law firm gets their way, Wikipedia (and EFF) will not be allowed to tell you. A few days ago, the online encyclopedia received a cease and desist letter from one of the convicts—represented by the aptly named German law firm Stopp and Stopp—demanding that the perpetrator’s name be taken off of the Sedlmayr article page.
At issue is an apparent conflict between the U.S. First Amendment—which protects truthful speech—and German law—which seeks to protect the name and likenesses of private persons from unwanted publicity. Sedlmayr’s murderer became a public figure when he and his accomplice were tried for brutally killing the well-known actor, and contemporary newspapers published his identity at that time. Fifteen years later, according to his attorneys, German law views the killer as a private citizen again. So, his lawyers have sued the German language Wikipedia, and threatened the English language version with the same, if they fail to censor the Sedlmayr article. They’ve also gone after an Austrian ISP that had published the names, and it looks like that case may head to the European Court of Justice. Perhaps Germany wants to make it easier for defendants to reintegrate into society, and publicizing a man’s past crimes interferes with the effort. After all, “he who controls the past, controls the future”. But this slogan from Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is anathema under U.S. law, which takes it as an article of faith that people must be allowed to publish truthful information about historical events.
A foreign power should not be able to censor publications in the United States, regardless of whether doing so suits the country’s domestic law. The current dispute is reminiscent of LICRA v. Yahoo!, in which a French court ordered the American company to prevent access to its Nazi memorabilia auctions by French residents, then fined the company for failing to do so. Yahoo! sought and obtained a ruling in the U.S. that imposing the French law on the company would violate the First Amendment. (The opinion was subsequently overturned for lack of personal jurisdiction over the French entities).
At stake is the integrity of history itself. If all publications have to abide by the censorship laws of any and every jurisdiction just because they are accessible over the global internet, then we will not be able to believe what we read, whether about Falun Gong (censored by China), the Thai king (censored under lèse majesté) or German murders. Wikipedia appears ready to fight for write once, read anywhere history, and EFF will be watching this fight closely.
Oh, and by the way, the convicts were Wolfgang Werlé and his half-brother Manfred Lauber.
And here’s Prof. Eugene Volokh’s reaction:
Not so long ago, the law in some American states — including, most prominently, California, where I live — would actually have been on the side of suppressing the criminals’ names, maybe, sometimes, depending on how a judge or jury would apply a mushy “newsworthiness” standard. Fortunately, some Supreme Court decisions from the 1970s and 1980s recognized a nearly unlimited right to report truthful information from public records, and a 2004 California Supreme Court decision definitively held that the old California cases were no longer good law.
To explain why I think protecting such speech is an excellent decision — and why I’m strongly opposed to some “privacy” and “paid his debt to society” rhetoric in such cases — I thought I’d reprint an excerpt of my Freedom of Speech and Information Privacy: The Troubling Implications of a Right to Stop People From Speaking About You, 52 Stanford L. Rev. 1049 (2000):
[In Briscoe, Reader’s Digest was held liable for revealing that Briscoe had eleven years earlier been convicted of armed robbery (a robbery that involved his fighting “a gun battle with the local police”). The court acknowledged that the speech, while not related to any particular political controversy, was newsworthy; the public is properly concerned with crime, how it happens, how it’s fought, and how it can be avoided. Moreover, revealing the identity of someone “currently charged with the commission of a crime” is itself newsworthy, because “it may legitimately put others on notice that the named individual is suspected of having committed a crime,” thus presumably warning them that they may want to be cautious in their dealings with him.
But revealing Briscoe’s identity eleven years after his crime, the court said, served no “public purpose” and was not “of legitimate public interest”; there was no “reason whatsoever” for it. The plaintiff was “rehabilitated” and had “paid his debt to society.”) “[W]e, as right-thinking members of society, should permit him to continue in the path of rectitude rather than throw him back into a life of shame or crime” by revealing his past. “Ideally, [Briscoe’s] neighbors should recognize his present worth and forget his past life of shame. But men are not so divine as to forgive the past trespasses of others, and plaintiff therefore endeavored to reveal as little as possible of his past life.” And to assist Briscoe in what the court apparently thought was a worthy effort at concealment, the law may bar people from saying things that would interfere with Briscoe’s plans.
Judges are of course entitled to have their own views about which things “right-thinking members of society” should “recognize” and which they should forget; but it seems to me that under the First Amendment members of society have a constitutional right to think things through in their own ways. And some people do take a view that differs from that of the Briscoe judges: While criminals can change their character, this view asserts, they often don’t. Someone who was willing to fight a gun battle with the police eleven years ago may be more willing than the average person to do something bad today, even if he has led a blameless life since then (something that no court can assure us of, since it may be that he has continued acting violently on occasion, but just hasn’t yet been caught).
Under this ideology, it’s perfectly proper to keep this possibility in mind in one’s dealings with the supposedly “reformed” felon. While the government may want to give him a second chance by releasing him from prison, restoring his right to vote and possess firearms, and even erasing its publicly accessible records related to the conviction, his friends, acquaintances, and business associates are entitled to adopt a different attitude. Most presumably wouldn’t treat him as a total pariah, but they might use extra caution in dealing with him, especially when it comes to trusting their business welfare or even their physical safety (or that of their children) to his care. And, as Richard Epstein has pointed out, they might use extra caution in dealing with him precisely because he has for the last eleven years hidden this history and denied them the chance to judge him for themselves based on the whole truth about his past. Those who think such concealment is wrong will see it as direct evidence of present bad character (since the concealment was continuing) and not just of past bad character. . . .
[W]hich viewpoint about our neighbors’ past crimes is “right-thinking” and which is “wrong-thinking” is the subject of a longstanding moral debate. Surely it is not up to the government to conclude that the latter view is so wrong, that Briscoe’s conviction was so “[il]legitimate” a subject for consideration, that the government can suppress speech that undermines its highly controversial policy of forgive-and-forget. I can certainly see why all of us might want to suppress “information about [our] remote and forgotten past[s]” in order “to change . . . others’ definitions of [ourselves].” But in a free speech regime, others’ definitions of me should primarily be molded by their own judgments, rather than by my using legal coercion to keep them in the dark.
So the California Supreme Court’s 2004 decision (Gates v. Discovery Communications, Inc.), and the Supreme Court decisions on which it’s based, are a victory for free speech. And to the extent that they are a defeat for “privacy” under such circumstances, they are a defeat for a form of privacy that the law ought not recognize — a putative right to stop people from telling the truth about what you’ve done.
Further reading: Wired’s Threat Level, PogoWasRight.org, Geek.com, CNET.
EPIC’s Amicus In Favor Of Stoppage
Here’s Prof. Volokh on a similar affair, this one in the United States with its relatively stronger speech protections and weaker privacy rights:
In an amicus brief EPIC just filed in G.D. v. Kenny — a case pending before the New Jersey Supreme Court — EPIC argues that convicted criminals should be able to sue for “disclosure of private facts” when others accurately report on the criminal conviction, so long as the state court system decided to retroactively expunge that conviction. …
Other parts of the EPIC brief argue that revealing the fact of a conviction without revealing that it was expunged might properly constitute false light invasion of privacy. I don’t think this is right, at least if the expungement is not based on a finding of actual innocence, since the important factual assertion underlying the revelation — which is that someone did something criminal — remains correct, and puts the person in a true light, not a false light. But that’s a separate matter.
Here, I want to point to EPIC’s argument that “‘truth’ is not a defense to privacy torts,” and in particular that “the appellate court should not have terminated [plaintiff’s] … public disclosure of private facts claim once it dismissed the defamation claim. Invasion of privacy remains an issue of fact for the jury.”
In the case itself, plaintiff G.D. had been convicted in 1993 for possessing drugs with intent to distribute, and sentenced to five years in prison. He later worked for Brian Stack “as a part-time aide … when Stack was a member of the Hudson County Board of Freeholders.” Stack later became “a member of the State Assembly as well as the Mayor of Union City,” and a primary candidate for the New Jersey Senate. “Defendants believed that plaintiff supported Stack in his primary campaign for the State Senate nomination, although plaintiff maintained that he was not actively working for Stack’s candidacy.”
So during the primary campaign, defendants — Stack’s political adversaries — put out a flyer attacking Stack, by pointing to the past misdeeds of Stack’s associates, including G.D. Defendants apparently didn’t know (and perhaps wouldn’t have cared) that G.D. had gotten the conviction officially expunged — a procedure that is not, to my knowledge, based on a judgment of innocence, but just on a state’s judgment that expunging the conviction is fair and helps promote rehabilitation. (As it happens, despite the expungement, the conviction was still present on the New Jersey Department of Corrections Web site until after G.D.‘s lawsuit against defendants was filed.) G.D. sued for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and disclosure of private facts; the New Jersey appellate court rejected G.D.‘s claim as a matter of law, because the statements were substantially true; last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to review the matter.
So the plaintiffs were speaking about an official and public New Jersey proceeding — G.D.‘s conviction. They were speaking about something that New Jersey law treats as a serious crime. They were speaking about someone who had been an aide to a politician, and whose character in some measure could be seen by voters as reflecting on the character of the person who chose to hire him.
Yet EPIC takes the view that the legal system should potentially be able to impose potentially huge financial liability for conveying this information about G.D. (if a jury concludes such liability is proper, presumably because the jury concludes publishing such information is, in its view, “offensive to a reasonable person” and not “newsworthy”). And this is so despite the Court’s having held that people at the very least have a presumptive right to communicate truthful information drawn from court records, even when the information relates to innocent victims. Surely the First Amendment must assure at least as much with regard to information about convicted criminals, especially ones who have become assistants to political officials.
Of course, some voters and other listeners may reasonably conclude that they don’t care about 14-year-old felony conviction. And a state may choose to no longer distribute such information itself, or to rely on it itself. But it doesn’t follow that the government may gag — on pain of potentially massive jury awards — those citizens who continue to think that the information may be relevant to an evaluation of the convicted criminal’s character.
As I argue in Freedom of Speech and Information Privacy: The Troubling Implications of a Right to Stop People From Speaking About You, 52 52 Stanford L. Rev. 1049 (2000), this sort of right to suppress the speech of others is a very bad idea, both on its own terms and because of its possible implications for other speech restrictions. I’m sorry to see EPIC arguing in favor of such speech suppression.
From this week’s Parshah:
וְכִי-תִמְכְּרוּ מִמְכָּר לַעֲמִיתֶךָ, אוֹ קָנֹה מִיַּד עֲמִיתֶךָ–אַל-תּוֹנוּ, אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו.
וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹקיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי יְקוָק, אֱלֹקיכֶם.
The Mishnah and Beraisa explain:
כשם שאונאה במקח וממכר כך אונאה בדברים לא יאמר לו בכמה חפץ זה והוא אינו רוצה ליקח אם היה בעל תשובה לא יאמר לו זכור מעשיך הראשונים אם הוא בן גרים לא יאמר לו זכור מעשה אבותיך שנאמר וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו:
ת”ר לא תונו איש את עמיתו באונאת דברים הכתוב מדבר אתה אומר באונאת דברים או אינו אלא באונאת ממון כשהוא אומר וכי תמכרו ממכר לעמיתך או קנה מיד עמיתך הרי אונאת ממון אמור הא מה אני מקיים לא תונו איש את עמיתו באונאת דברים
הא כיצד אם היה בעל תשובה אל יאמר לו זכור מעשיך הראשונים אם היה בן גרים אל יאמר לו זכור מעשה אבותיך
אם היה גר ובא ללמוד תורה אל יאמר לו פה שאכל נבילות וטריפות שקצים ורמשים בא ללמוד תורה שנאמרה מפי הגבורה
אם היו יסורין באין עליו אם היו חלאים באין עליו או שהיה מקבר את בניו אל יאמר לו כדרך שאמרו לו חביריו לאיוב הלא יראתך כסלתך תקותך ותום דרכיך זכר נא מי הוא נקי אבד
אם היו חמרים מבקשין תבואה ממנו לא יאמר להם לכו אצל פלוני שהוא מוכר תבואה ויודע בו שלא מכר מעולם
ר”י אומר אף לא יתלה עיניו על המקח בשעה שאין לו דמים שהרי הדבר מסור ללב וכל דבר המסור ללב נאמר בו ויראת מאלקיך
א”ר יוחנן משום ר”ש בן יוחאי גדול אונאת דברים מאונאת ממון שזה נאמר בו ויראת מאלקיך וזה לא נאמר בו ויראת מאלקיך
ור’ אלעזר אומר זה בגופו וזה בממונו
רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר זה ניתן להישבון וזה לא ניתן להישבון
תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים א”ל שפיר קא אמרת דחזינא ליה דאזיל סומקא ואתי חוורא אמר ליה אביי לרב דימי במערבא במאי זהירי א”ל באחוורי אפי דאמר רבי חנינא הכל יורדין לגיהנם חוץ משלשה הכל ס”ד אלא אימא כל היורדין לגיהנם עולים חוץ משלשה שיורדין ואין עולין ואלו הן הבא על אשת איש והמלבין פני חבירו ברבים והמכנה שם רע לחבירו מכנה היינו מלבין אע”ג דדש ביה בשמיה
אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן נוח לו לאדם שיבא על ספק אשת איש ואל ילבין פני חבירו ברבים מנ”ל מדדרש רבא דדרש רבא מאי דכתיב ובצלעי שמחו ונאספו קרעו ולא דמו אמר דוד לפני הקב”ה רבש”ע גלוי וידוע לפניך שאם היו מקרעים בשרי לא היה דמי שותת לארץ ולא עוד אלא אפילו בשעה שעוסקין בנגעים ואהלות אומרים לי דוד הבא על אשת איש מיתתו במה ואני אומר להם מיתתו בחנק ויש לו חלק לעוה”ב אבל המלבין את פני חבירו ברבים אין לו חלק לעוה”ב
(ואמר) מר זוטרא בר טוביה אמר רב ואמרי לה אמר רב חנא בר ביזנא אמר ר”ש חסידא ואמרי לה א”ר יוחנן משום רשב”י נוח לו לאדם שיפיל עצמו לכבשן האש ואל ילבין פני חבירו ברבים מנ”ל מתמר דכתיב היא מוצאת והיא שלחה אל חמיה
כתיבת שם של משומד שחזר בתשובה
An interesting application of the injunction against אונאת דברים is the opinion that we do not mention in a גט the Gentile name of a Jewish apostate who has repented and returned to Judaism, to avoid humiliating and shaming the repentant individual:
מצאתי כתוב בתיקון בסדר גיטין ישן דמשומד שעשה תשובה שבא לגרש אין לכתוב בו כלל כל שום וחניכא כמו שעושים לשאר משומדים דאילו כתבו הוה כאילו אומרים לו זכור מעשיך הראשונים עכ”ל
ונראה שמזה למדו שלא לכתוב בגט שום כינוי שהוא גנאי ובושה למתכנה בו משום דאית ביה משום לא תונו ועוד דאין דרך לקרותו בכינוי זה לבד בלא עיקר שמו. כן נראה לי.
אמנם בסדר גיטין אחר מצאתי שצריך לכתוב כל שום אפילו היה משומד בילדותו והביא מעשה בזה וכתב שכן הסכימו מהרד”כ ומהרא”ף.
ובתשובת מוהר”ם פאדו”ה סימן ל”ה כתב בשם הרבה גדולים דאין לכתוב שם דגיות מאחר שעשה תשובה ולא כל שום וחניכא ועיי”ש שהאריך בזה.
נוסח כתובה של בעולה
There is a similar dispute over the proper designation in the כתובה of a woman who is not a virgin (but neither a widow nor a divorcée); some Poskim argue against writing בעולתא, in sensitivity to the woman’s feelings. [This question was recently discussed in The Yeshiva World’s Coffee Room.]:
ואם היא אנוסה או מפותה. י”א כותבין סתם אמר לה להדא לאה ולא כותבין בעול’ כי גנאי הוא להזכיר זה וי”א שכותבין בעולת וכן נראה לי כדי לפרסומי לרבים שנבעלת כי שמא אסורה לכהן אף על גב דאמרה לכשר נבעלתי לאו מפיה אנו חיין דרוב פסולים אצלה ושמא נבעלה לגוי ואמר שמואל לרב יודא הלכה כר”ג ואת לא תעביד עובדא כו’ ואילו חילוקי דינים אין להאריך כאן אך נראה לי עיקר לכתוב בעולה כדי לפרסם למאן דקפיד קפיד …
להדא בתולתא, … ואם היא אנוסה או מפותה יש כותבין סתם אמר לה להדא פלונית ואין כותבין בעולה, כי גנאי הוא לה להזכיר זה. ויש אומרים שצריכין לכתוב בעולה וכן עיקר, כדי לפרסם שנבעלה ושמא אסורה לכהן דנבעלת לפסול לזה, דעכשיו הרוב פסולים אצלה, שהרי יש גוים הרבה הפוסלים אותה לכהונה.
כתב הב”ש ואם היא בעולה כותבין בעולתא עיין נחלת שבעה העלה שלא לכתוב בעולה וכן נלע”ד כי גדולה בושה והמלבין וכו’ ועיין סימן ס”ה א’ ואין לכתוב אלא פלונית ארוסה ודי בזה לסימן