Does a murderer have the right to be forgotten?

In 2008 two convicted murderers asked for their names to be removed from Wikipedia and other online media outlets, in accordance with German law. Does the individual’s right to be forgotten take priority over the public’s right to know?

The case

In 1993, Wolfgang Werle and Manfred Lauber were convicted for the murder of the German actor Walter Sedlmayr and served 14 and 15 year prison sentences. Upon their release in 2007 and 2008, Werle and Lauber took several media outlets to court, including not only the German Der Spiegel but also English-language Wikipedia, for mentioning the names of the two men in articles that described them as murderers. The English language Wikipedia refused to remove the names of the two men, as this would have been an infringement on Wikipedia’s media freedom. The company is based in the US, and therefore protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. German laws are not enforceable on companies not based in the country.

In Germany, a Hamburg court in the first instance agreed in 2008 that naming the two men in archived articles violated the privacy rights of Werle and Lauber, and ordered their names to be removed. Under a 1973 German court decision persons have the right not to have their convictions reported after they have completed their punitive sentences. German Wikipedia editors thereafter removed the names from the German Wikipedia. In 2009, however, the German Constitutional Court reversed this decision on the grounds that this was a restriction of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press, and that Werle and Lauber would have to accept a certain degree of intrusion into their privacy. The decision was taken on the grounds that removing the information from all archives would constitute too high a financial burden for Wikipedia. After the ruling, the German Wikipedia page restored the names to its content.

Author opinion

The case of Wolfgang Werle and Manfred Lauber requires balancing the right of the individual to be forgotten against the right of the public to know – and, in turn, the right of the media to report. There are very good reasons for the right to be forgotten, yet the freedom to report such facts should be protected, as it has been under the US First Amendment and the German Constitutional Court. In certain circumstances the public has a right to know of convictions, such as in cases of convicted child molesters where it may be valuable for families to know that someone with such a conviction lives in the neighbourhood.  In this case, only if it were feasible to remove the names of the two men would it be the right decision.

The case also opens up the question of whether - in a globally connected world in which netizens produce much of the online content - it is possible to stop people publishing information about such cases. While laws may in some cases offer protection against the publication of names, this is often inconsistent given the uncontrollable nature of the internet. Examples of this are the recent cases of police action against offensive tweets – which may be justified – but often happen against a background of hundreds of others posting similar tweets without suffering prosecution. Another dilemma is the impossibility of preventing the names of convicts being published internationally, which defeats the purpose of domestic bans. The more interesting question is therefore whether national laws remain relevant when it comes to the protection of privacy.

 

 

- Judith Bruhn

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Comments (5)

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  1. This case reminded me of the case of an Indian-origin doctor in UK. He was accused of molestation (sexual assault) by a female patient. In the first instance he was found guilty by the medical council but the high court cleared him of all the charges. As expected, the media (both in UK and India) carried the reports of he being found guilty of sexual misconduct. But when the high court cleared him, there was no interest in his case. He then himself contacted newspapers and websites asking them to carry a report on the high court judgment or remove the earlier content. Fortunately for him he was happy with the responses he got.

  2. It is highly controversial issue. In my humble opinion, it shouldn’t be permit to erase any names which belongs to the murderers in the internet or any other sources. I think that these names gives information about these people so anyone would take necessary steps when it comes to closing these people. Disclosing these names would be seen as a security precautions.

  3. Thank you Alexander, I agree with you that everyone deserves a second chance in life, including not being publicly named after he served his sentence.
    But do you think this is still enforceable in this interconnected world in which the internet allows information from all continents to be exchanged? Should foreign companies bow to German law?

    • Sorry. Please forgive me replying too late.
      I agree with you points definitely. The answer to the former question is the fluidity of the information shouldn’t be controlled. As to latter, of course not.
      However, I think this problem may bigger than that circumstance. We should consider the basic rights to live at first. Machine and law both are tools to ensure a normal society, before that, the protection of right of a single man must be concerned. Otherwise, even though regulations are in their way, make no sense.

  4. Certainly, the past doesn’t mean now, especially to persons who had mistake. According to this case, the German court gave a reasonable judgement to murderer. After the decision, we should realize that he ought to have rights to live in the society normally as other people. Therefore, surely, he has fame and privacy. There is no doubt law should protect him in these areas.

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