(new: Lensing-Wolff reaction, paragraphs 2 and 10)
KARLSRUHE / DORTMUND (dpa-AFX) – Regional media have to come to terms with this when city web portals publish individual journalism articles in addition to official announcements. The Federal Court of Justice (BGH) ruled on Thursday that the guarantee of the free press protects against being replaced by online offers from the public sector. However, with a large amount of content on such a page, not every unacceptable contribution matters. The decisive factor is how strongly it shapes the entire offer. (Az. I ZR 97/21)
Karlsruhe’s highest civil judges have no objection to the presentation of the Dortmund city portal. An order issued by the Dortmund media company Lensing (“Ruhr Nachrichten”) against the city remains ineffective. However, the publisher is considering filing a constitutional complaint after reviewing the written ruling against the final decision, as announced by publisher Lambert Lensing-Wolff.
The legal dispute has been going on since 2017, so the court dealt with the portal “dortmund.de” five years ago. At that time, the editors wrote that their hallmark is “in-depth reports with illustrations on all topics of Dortmund, such as politics, sport, business, culture, entertainment”. And: “A quick message, a clear report, an information strip for special occasions are as much part of the repertoire as live interviews with the people of this city.”
It went too far for a media company. After the BGH Lensing-Wolff hearing in May, he stated that there was no doubt that municipalities should be able to present their administrative activities. The city of Dortmund, however, has an image of its own similar to that of a press institution. If you think press freedom is under threat from the very end. “We are trying to keep the press free from politics and state influence.”
In the pending dispute in Dortmund, BGH filed a complaint in 2018 against the free “city newspaper” in Crailsheim in Baden-Württemberg. The main message of this judgment: Reporting social life in the community is the task of the local press, not the state.
In the new decision, the judges also confirm that excessive work of the city press carries risks. The public sector must exercise restraint, said chairman Jörn Feddersen. With the abundance of entries on the website, the quantitative ratio between allowed and unacceptable content is less significant than in a printed publication. On the Internet, it also depends on the importance of the post: Is the link immediately placed on the home page? How often is it clicked?
In the case of “dortmund.de”, BGH judges see no reason to intervene. They confirmed the judgment of the Higher Regional Court in Hamm, which dismissed the publisher’s complaint in the court of appeal. At the Dortmund District Court, the city was initially defeated.
The mayor of Dortmund, Thomas Westphal (SPD), explained that care had always been taken to fulfill the disclosure obligations without restricting press freedom rights. He is very pleased that BGH has fully confirmed this line. “This ruling gives all municipalities greater security to make their information available digitally as required.”
The German City Association welcomed the verdict – there was “freedom for modern communication”. “Cities today need to communicate digitally in a modern way,” said Verena Göppert, deputy CEO. “Anything else would be out of date if people didn’t understand it and would lead to information gaps.”
Lensing-Wolff, on the other hand, regrets that BGH has accepted a purely quantitative consideration. “As a result, this would mean: as long as the municipality mixes only a sufficient amount of admissible administrative content with individually unacceptable press content, the actually unacceptable part would suddenly be allowed in the aggregate analysis.” It is not about a free press order that is remote from the state. The gradual entry into work in the media is not the responsibility of the commune financed by taxes.
In response to the BGH proceeding and ruling in the Crailsheim case, the city of Dortmund for some time stopped publishing articles too similar to the press. From a purely legal point of view, she could now go back to the 2017 presentation. Sören Spoo, who is responsible for online communication at “dortmund.de”, does not intend to do so. It was found that the administration of a large city has so much to offer in terms of content that it is not necessary to define other topics. “We would like to maintain this status,” he said after the judgment in Karlsruhe./sem/DP/men