A man who served 15 years for the gruesome murder of a famous German actor is taking legal action against Wikipedia for reporting the conviction.
Attorneys took the action on behalf of Wolfgang Werlé, one of two men to receive a life sentence for the 1990 murder of Walter Sedlmayr. In a letter sent late last month to Wikipedia officials, they didn't dispute their client was found guilty, but they nonetheless demanded Wikipedia's English language biography of the Bavarian star suppress the convicted murder's name because he is considered a private individual under German law.
Werlé's "rehabilitation and his future life outside the prison system is severely impacted by your unwillingness to anonymize any articles dealing with the murder of Mr. Walter Sedlmayr with regard to our client's involvement," they wrote. "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."
They go on to say they are currently taking legal action against Wikipedia in the trial court of Hamburg. And according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Werlé's attorneys have also gone after an Austrian internet service provider that published the names of the convicted.
The dispute is the latest example of a party reaching halfway across the globe in an attempt to deprive the world of content that may or may not violate the laws of a single jurisdiction. If such actions succeed, they will largely gut free speech rights such as those guaranteed by the First Amendment, which mostly immunizes people who speak the truth, particularly in matters that involve court cases and other government proceedings. In its place would be the precedent that websites anywhere in the world are subject to the most restrictive territory's rules and mores.
As EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Granick said: "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."
It was only 14 months ago that The Register reported the attempts of Kentucky officials to seize control of some of the world's most popular gambling domain names because a judge ruled they offered services that were illegal in that state. At the time, we wondered what the difference was between that action and the censorship China exercises towards Tibet. Four months later, an appeals court answered, in essence, "not much," when it ruled the state lacked the legal authority to commence the seizure.
Wikipedia's German language entry on Sedlmayr already takes pains to omit the names of the men convicted of his murder, even though it reports he "was injured with multiple stab wounds on the neck and kidneys and then been beaten to death with a hammer." If Werlé's parochial legal demands succeed, robust speech on the global internet will suffer a similar fate.
Of course, the lawyers actions have been documented on Wikipedia...
In October 2009, lawyers for Wolfgang Werlé sent Wikimedia Foundation a cease and desist letter requesting that Werlé's name be removed from the English language Wikipedia article Walter Sedlmayr. The U.S. First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press, although German law seeks to protect the name and likenesses of private persons from unwanted publicity.