November 10, 2009 | By Jennifer Granick

Convicted Murderer To Wikipedia: Shhh!

In 1990, Bavarian actor Walter Sedlmayr was brutally murdered. Two of his business associates were convicted, imprisoned for the crime, and recently paroled. Who killed Sedlmayr? It's a matter of public record, but if one of the men and his German law firm gets their way, Wikipedia (and EFF) will not be allowed to tell you. A few days ago, the online encyclopedia received a cease and desist letter from one of the convicts—represented by the aptly named German law firm Stopp and Stopp—demanding that the perpetrator's name be taken off of the Sedlmayr article page.

At issue is an apparent conflict between the U.S. First Amendment—which protects truthful speech—and German law—which seeks to protect the name and likenesses of private persons from unwanted publicity. Sedlmayr's murderer became a public figure when he and his accomplice were tried for brutally killing the well-known actor, and contemporary newspapers published his identity at that time. Fifteen years later, according to his attorneys, German law views the killer as a private citizen again. So, his lawyers have sued the German language Wikipedia, and threatened the English language version with the same, if they fail to censor the Sedlmayr article. They've also gone after an Austrian ISP that had published the names, and it looks like that case may head to the European Court of Justice. Perhaps Germany wants to make it easier for defendants to reintegrate into society, and publicizing a man's past crimes interferes with the effort. After all, "he who controls the past, controls the future". But this slogan from Orwell's Ministry of Truth is anathema under U.S. law, which takes it as an article of faith that people must be allowed to publish truthful information about historical events.

A foreign power should not be able to censor publications in the United States, regardless of whether doing so suits the country's domestic law. The current dispute is reminiscent of LICRA v. Yahoo!, in which a French court ordered the American company to prevent access to its Nazi memorabilia auctions by French residents, then fined the company for failing to do so. Yahoo! sought and obtained a ruling in the U.S. that imposing the French law on the company would violate the First Amendment. (The opinion was subsequently overturned for lack of personal jurisdiction over the French entities).

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. Wikipedia appears ready to fight for write once, read anywhere history, and EFF will be watching this fight closely.

Oh, and by the way, the convicts were Wolfgang Werlé and his half-brother Manfred Lauber.


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