In 1990, Walter Sedlmayr, a well-known German actor was murdered. Two men were convicted and imprisoned for the crime: Wolfgang Werle and Manfred Lauber. They served their sentences and were released. Now they are suing Wikipedia (click HERE for the Wikipedia article) to remove any mention of their crime.
Their lawyer says that since they’d served their time, they are now entitled to privacy and to be left alone. And German law supports this. In Germany, media are not allowed to publish criminals’ names in these circumstances.
I agree that someone who has paid for his crime ought to have the opportunity to rebuild his life. He may now, indeed, be a good citizen. But he cannot be someone who has never committed a crime. And if German law seeks to achieve that transformation, it’s Orwellian.
But it’s worse than that. Freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, have got to include the ability to talk about events that have happened. To tell Wikipedia that it cannot say, in its article about Walter Sedlmayr, that he was murdered by two men named Werle and Lauber, is to say that it cannot chronicle history.
They were convicted in a court of law. They do have rights after release. But they don’t have the right to be non-murderers. They don’t have the right to get the past expunged from history.
As civil liberties lawyer Floyd Abrams said, “once you’re in the business of suppressing speech, the quest for more speech to suppress in endless.” Indeed, this is just one of innumerable ways in which freedom of expression continues to be under assault, even in advanced Western democracies where one might imagine these principles were settled beyond dispute. (See my previous blog entries on “Hillary: The Movie”; the UN “human rights” panel; and one other.)
The New York Times article about the Sedlmayr case ended by quoting the lawyer for the two murderers, who was interviewed: “I trust that you will not mention my clients’ names in your article.” Of course, the Times did mention their names. And so have I.