On December 14, 2009, the German Federal Court of Justice decided (file nos. VI ZR 227/08 and VI ZR 228/08 – the complete judgments are not available yet) that the defendant Deutschlandradio (a German radio station) is permitted to make non-current transcripts of broadcast contributions that explicitly identify the names of the convicted murderers of the famous German actor Walter Sedlmayr available in its online archive. The plaintiffs cannot demand from the defendant Deutschlandradio to refrain from maintaining the respective transcripts on the part of its homepage www.dradio.de that is dedicated to archived news.
In 1993, the plaintiffs received a life sentence for murder of the actor Walter Sedlmayr. They were released on parole in summer 2007 and January 2008 respectively. In the category “Kalenderblatt” (calendar sheet) of its online presence, the defendant had kept a transcript of a contribution with the title “Walter Sedlmayr murdered 10 years ago” (“Vor 10 Jahren Walter Sedlmayr ermordet”), dating from July 14, 2000 until at least sometime into the year 2007. This contribution truthfully discloses the full names of the plaintiffs as convicted in the murder case of Walter Sedlmayr.
The plaintiffs succeeded with their demands before the lower courts. However, upon appeal by the defendant, the VI. Civil Court of the Federal Court of Justice, responsible for the protection of personal rights, overruled the decisions of the lower instances and dismissed the claims. In its decision, the Federal Court weighed the personal rights of the plaintiffs and their interest in social reintegration against the public’s interest in information, and the freedom of opinion and of the press of the defendant. The Federal Court decided that making the contribution containing the plaintiffs’ full names available does indeed constitute an intrusion into the plaintiffs’ personal rights. However, in this case the intrusion is not unlawful because the plaintiffs’ interests, including their interest in a successful reintegration after release on parole, has to give way to the public’s interest in obtaining information, served by the defendant, as well as the defendant’s freedom of opinion. According to the Federal Court, the objected contribution is not capable of pillorying the plaintiffs or showcasing them in a fashion that would (again) stigmatize the plaintiffs as convicted criminals. In evaluating the facts, the Federal Court of Justice took into consideration that the contribution contained matter-of-factly worded and true statements regarding a capital crime against a famous person that had caused considerable excitement in the public. The fact that the plaintiffs had continued to seek a repeal of their conviction until far after the year 2000 was also of importance for the legitimacy of making the contribution available in 2000. This evaluation did not change after the plaintiffs’ release on parole because the contribution has a limited impact on the public because of its rather hidden location on the defendant’s homepage, and because the public’s interest lies not only in current affairs but also in the possibility to research events that occurred in the past. The Federal Court explicitly mentioned the risk that the desired prohibition may result in a deterring effect on the use of the freedom of opinion and of the press, thereby restricting the free information and communication process: the defendant might exclude such facts that may cause the contribution to become illegal later on from the contribution, or it might refrain from archiving its contributions entirely.
The decision by the Federal Court of Justice clearly shows that the public’s interest in information in past events, and the freedom of opinion and freedom of press of media companies, takes up a high rank and may indeed outweigh the personal rights and interests in reintegration of the individual .