Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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On Appeal Expands Expression
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The Landgericht Hamburg, a court of first instance, held that there was no violation of the personality rights of a right-wing politician who was called a “Nazi slut” during a satirical television show. In its decision, the Landgericht Hamburg recognised that the statement amounted to a form of political satire. It went on to acknowledge that a viewer would not interpret the term “Nazi slut” literally and would, instead, recognize it as an exaggeration typical of satire. The Landgericht Hamburg denied the politician’s claim and ordered that she pay 50,000 EUR in legal costs. She has stated that she intends to appeal the decision.
This case concerned Alice Weidel, a politician who was voted to run in the 2017 German elections as the lead electoral candidate (Spitzenkandidatin) for a right wing political party called the Alternative for Germany party. During a speech at a party convention, Ms. Weidel stated that “political correctness belonged in the dustbin of history.”
In April 2017, a weekly German satire show entitled “Extra 3” contained statements of a comedian, Christian Ehring, who said in relation to Ms. Weidel’s speech; “[a]lright then, political correctness is over – let’s all be incorrect to each other. The Nazi slut is right there”.
Ms. Weidel brought proceedings against the producers of “Extra 3”, claiming that the expression “Nazi slut” was defamatory. She sought interim relief in the form of an injunction restraining the relevant statement.
On 11 May 2017, the Landgericht Hamburg (Court) rejected Ms. Weidel’s claim. In its decision, the Court had little difficulty in finding that the statements were a form of satirical expression. The Court went on to highlight that some satire could be protected as a form of artistic expression under the Constitution (Article 5(3) of the German Constitution) and, in any event, such expression would be protected by the right to freedom of expression (Article 5(1)) provided it did not violate the core dignity rights of another individual.
To evaluate whether the relevant statements were protected by the right to freedom of expression, the Court took into account the general context in which the statements were made. The Court also indicated that where a satirical statement contains an incorrect factual allegation, the Court would have to evaluate whether it would be obvious to the viewer that the statement was a form of exaggeration typical of satire rather than a statement that was to be treated literally.
In the present case, the Court determined that Ms. Weidel was a “public figure” and, therefore, had to accept pointed criticism of her activities. The Court reasoned that it was obvious from the statements that Ms. Weidel was not being referred to as a “Nazi” because she supported the tenets of national socialism. Instead, it was a satirical response to her statement that “political correctness belonged in the dustbin of history”. The statement demonstrated, with offensive words, where such an approach to “political correctness” would lead her. Furthermore, the Court noted that the use of the term “Nazi” was also in reference to the fact that her political party was generally viewed as being right wing. The Court also rejected Ms. Weidel’s argument that viewers would understand the term “slut” to mean that she was promiscuous.
In light of the above, the Court found that a viewer would not draw any false conclusions from the statement that was made. Thus, the Court could not find that Ms. Weidel’s personality rights were violated and it could not restrain the constitutionally protected expression of the television programme. Accordingly, the Court denied Ms. Weidel’s claim for an interim injunction and ordered that she bear the legal costs of the proceeding in the amount of 50,000 EUR.
Ms. Weidel has stated that she intends to appeal the decision.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision expands freedom of expression by recognising that statements of fact, when made in a satirical setting, will not be interpreted literally by viewers or readers. By adopting such an approach, the decision gives strong protection to satirical expression (particularly in the context of political debate).
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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