Unsecret history

>> Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ever heard of Wolfgang Werlé or Manfred Lauber? How about Walter Sedlmayr? Me either, at least until today, but it seems that Messrs. Werlé and Lauber were convicted in a German court for murdering Mr. Sedlmayr, did their time and were released. And that would be the end of it except that something interesting happened, sort of: you see, it seems that under German law once somebody has done their time for something like murder, their name can then no longer be mentioned in print in connection with the crime or something--it's some kind of weird privacy thing. Now, as it happens, the late Mr. Sedlmeyer's entry in Wikipedia lists the names of the men convicted of killing him, which prompted Mr. Werlé to sue to have his name removed from the online encyclopedia. This resulted in Mr. Werlé and Mr. Lauber having their names reprinted in the New York Times article linked to in the previous sentence, and of course Slashdot picked it up as a matter of interest to online nerds everywhere (which, incidentally, is how the story came to my attention).

The German edition of Wikipedia deleted the convicted murderers' names, but the English edition continues to identify Mr. Werlé and Mr. Lauber. I suppose the Germans felt they had no choice--if their servers are in Germany, I think there's no getting around a German court having jurisdiction over the German Wikipedia Foundation. The American incarnation, on the other hand, is evidently hosted in Florida, which raises interesting legal issues: since the English version of Wikipedia is available in Germany, it's certainly published there, but the American Wikipedia Foundation has no physical presence there and thus is not exactly amenable to being sued, and perhaps has a strong argument (if they are sued in a German court) that the German court has no jurisdiction over the matter and thus any suit ought to be dismissed. And a suit in an American courtroom seems likely to fail given that little thing called the First Amendment.

I've sometimes been ambivalent about Wikipedia, but I hope they stand their ground. Indeed, I think it's amusing and apt that they've added an entry for Werlé, which I suspect didn't exist before he made himself "notable" in such a self-destructive fashion (a comment on the Werlé talk page aptly compares Mr. Werlé's legal shenanigans to scoring an own-goal on one's own net).

Given the nature of my job, I sympathize just a little with the German court's privacy ruling: the media frequently seems uninterested in accuracy if a good story would sell more papers, and there's something to be said for allowing people to get along with their lives once they've paid a debt to society. Even a modest criminal act can be life-destroying and create a self-perpetuating cycle wherein an ancient mistake makes it impossible for one to make an honest living, so he turns to a dishonest one, becoming a recidivist who is even less able to make an honest living.

But there's also something else at stake: truth. I do hope that Mr. Werlé and Mr. Lauber move on with their lives, are productive citizens in their homeland (or wherever they end up), that if there are amends they can make for the taking of a life, they make them. I am not in a position to second-guess the German legal system and will assume, must assume that the punishment they have endured was just and appropriate for their crime. But the indisputable facts are that they committed this crime, or at least that they were convicted of it, and it serves nobody to allow those facts to go down an Orwellian "memory hole" to be flushed and forgotten by official records, only to be remembered by people who cannot repeat the truth and who must inevitably doubt their own sanities.

There are also some interesting things to think about in terms of international law and conflicts of law, although this particular situation isn't actually that complex. German and American laws are incompatible, but this seems like a situation in which German law will not carry much weight on American soil, unlike the kinds of situations that are arising in copyright law as a result of the fact that the United States has signed onto international conventions based on European law that are not necessarily compatible with American common law on Fair Use. But it is somewhat interesting as an example of how isolationists, whether in the United States or abroad, have already lost the battle to close the barn doors to the extent that technology, like economics, has welded nations together and dissolved borders.

And there are, perhaps, some interesting things to ponder insofar as this seems like another example of freedom being the natural state of information: information wants to be free to roam, whether individuals like Messrs. Werdé and Lauber are discomfited by it or not. It's inconvenient to be convicted of murder, to be sure, but I'm not sure how you keep everybody from knowing about it, even if German law helps you keep it out of the German papers.

Things to think about, at any rate. Oh, and by the way: Wolfgang Werdé and Manfred Lauber. Just because.


2 comments:

Nathan Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 4:38:00 PM EST  

How's this for coincidence? Yesterday, we were shooting a couple of scenes in a cemetery in Tappan, NY. It's an active cemetery -- well, they still bury people there, but I can't speak to whether or not there's any zombie or ghostly goings-on -- but it's also a historic cemetery, dating back to the 18th century.

While they were shooting a scene that I found particularly boring, I went wandering around one of the older sections looking at stones. I found one that fascinated me. It named the deceased, his family, birth, etc...all the normal stuff. At the bottom, however, it said "Murdered by ___________ (I forget the name) on November 12th, 1845.

The only thing I could speculate was that maybe the "murderer" was never tried and/or convicted and this was the only revenge the family could get? I really have no idea, but I've never seen anything like it.

(A friend took a picture for me and I'll post it as soon as he sends it to me.)

ntsc Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 9:47:00 AM EST  

The electronic version of my high school yearbook (no longer on line), listed the killer of our first classmate to die by name along with scans of newspaper reports of the trial. (The killer is out, we have no idea doing what. It was a long time ago.)

By the way the NYTs was asked, at the end of the interview, to not publish names or pictures. They did both.

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