Public Service Post: Watch What You Say in Germany

With this post, I am going to take the controversial step of actually posting something containing useful information. I know, it’s a break with GJ tradition, but something that recently occurred got me thinking.

The other day someone who shall remain nameless, an expat living in Germany, contacted me privately. The person had hired a professional — let’s say a plumber — and wasn’t satisfied with the service he provided. The person described the service on their blog, and apparently identified the plumber by name. Next thing you know, the person’s gotten a letter from the plumber’s lawyer. He’s suing the blogger for all sorts of scary-sounding things.

This says a few things worth knowing about Germany. First of all, the German cocktail-party stereotype of Americans as litigation-happy is pure, 100% Freudian projection. In fact, what stands out when you look at German cases is the sheer, mind-boggling triviality of the complaints. People will sue over an ugly comment, a negative customer evaluation, and, of course, over their beloved package vacations. A list of the "vacation defects" and the corresponding price reductions can be found here (G). Examples: "too little furniture" in your hotel room gets you a 5-15% percent discount; too much noise gets you between 5 and 40%; "no mini-golf" gets you a 3-5% deduction; "no nude beach" gets you a 10-20 percent discount!

I’m not pointing fingers here, in fact, I think a good number of lawsuits is a sign of a healthy judicial systen — it means people trust the courts, and in Germany especially, it shows that sensible regulations permit people to go to court without risking a fortune. But it also means you’ve got to be careful posting on blogs that can be read in Germany.

Germany has laws designed to protect people’s honor from unfair or insulting comments that has no counterpart in Anglo-American legal systems. They have deep historical roots.
An entire section of the criminal code deals with various kinds of insults and attacks on people’s honor, including "insults" and "malicious gossip," and my favorite, "Disparagement of the Memory of Deceased Persons." These provisions can also give rise to civil lawsuit in which you demand monetary compensation for the harm (people almost never go to jail for these things, despite the mention of prison sentences in the criminal code).

Of course, this doesn’t mean Germany doesn’t "respect freedom of speech": there are exceptions and regulations designed to protect legitimate debate about public issues. But it does mean that it is a very bad idea to publish something on a blog that criticizes a person by name. The risk is greatest when:

  1. You’re criticizing a private person who hasn’t sought publicity;
  2. You’re criticizing them for something that has to do with their profession or livelihood (i.e. this plumber screwed up my bathroom, this doctor was rude);
  3. You stray from purely factual reporting and include negative comments and judgments; and;
  4. Last and most importantly, you use their name or otherwise identify them.

The fact that that what you said was true (or "truly" reflects your opinion) may not protect you, unless you stick completely to the facts without any value judgments.

So that’s something to keep in mind as you merrily blog away. And let me remind you: Dude, this post is totally, like not legal advice.

2 thoughts on “Public Service Post: Watch What You Say in Germany

  1. Good that it isn’t. If it was, the state could sue you for giving legal advice for free, couldn’t it? That’s what I hate about our judicial system…

    Like

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