Many of you will have already seen (e.g. via Giesela Ruehl) the German Supreme Court (Bundesgerichtshof – BGH)’s refusal to recognise and enforce a Polish judgment under the Brussels I Regulation (application was made of Brussels I but the Recast on this issue has not materially changed). The BGH argued that enforcement would violate German public policy, notable freedom of speech and freedom of the press as embodied in the German Constitution.
Giesala has the necessary background. Crux of the refusal seemed to be that the Court found that to require ZDF to publish by way of a correction /clarification (a mechanism present in all Western European media laws), a text drafted by someone else as its own opinion would violate ZDF’s fundamental rights.
Refusal of course is rare and in this case, too, one can have misgivings about its application. The case however cannot be decoupled from the extremely strong sentiment for freedom of speech under German law, for obvious reasons, and the recent controversy surrounding the Polish law banning the use of the phrase ‘Polish concentration camps’.
I am very pleased to have been given approval by professor Burkhard Hess to publish the succinct comment on the case which he had sent me when the judgment was issued. I have included it below.
European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 2, 18.104.22.168.1, 22.214.171.124.4
The German Federal Civil Court rejects the recognition of a Polish judgment in a defamation case under the Brussels I Regulation for violation of public policy
Burkhard Hess, Max Planck Institute Luxembourg
In 2013, the German broadcasting company ZDF (a public body) broadcast a film about Konzentrationcamps. In the film, it was (incorrectly) stated that Auschwitz and Majdanek were “Polish extermination camps”. Further to the protests made by the Polish embassy in Berlin, ZDF introduced the necessary changes in the film and issued an official apology. However, a former inmate of the KZ, brought a civil lawsuit in Poland claiming violation of his personality rights. With his claim he sought remedy in the form of the broadcasting company (ZDF) publishing on its Internet home page both a declaration that the history of the Polish people had been falsified in the film and a statement of apology. Ultimately, the Cracow Court of Appeal ordered the publication of the declaration on the company’s home page. While ZDF published the text on its website visibly for one month, it did not post it on its home page.
Consequently, the plaintiff sought the recognition of the Polish judgment in Germany under the Brussels I Regulation. However, the German Federal Court denied the request for recognition on the grounds that it would infringe on German public policy (article 34 No 1 Regulation (EU) 44/2001). In its ruling, the Court referred to the freedom of the press and of speech (article 5 of the Constitution) and to the case-law of the Constitutional Court. The Court stated that the facts had been incorrectly represented in the film. However, it held that, under German law, ordering a declaration of apology qualifies as ordering a declaration of opinion (Meinungsäusserung) and that, according to the fundamental freedom of free speech, nobody can be obliged to make a declaration which does not correspond to his or her own opinion (the right to reply is different as it clearly states that the reply is made by the person entitled to the reply). As a result, the Polish judgment was not recognized.
BGH, 19 July 2018, IX ZB 10/18, The judgment can be downloaded here.
To my knowledge, this is one of the very rare cases where a foreign judgment was refused recognition in Germany under article 34 no 1 of the Brussels I Regulation (now article 45 (1) (a) Brussels Ibis Regulation) because substantive public policy was infringed.
Speaking frankly, I’m not convinced by the decision. Of course, the text which the ZDF, according to the Cracow court, had to make as its own statement represented a so-called expression of opinion. Its imposition is not permissible under German constitutional law: requiring the ZDF-television to making this expression its own would have amounted to an infringement of the freedom of speech as guaranteed by article 5 of the Constitution.
However, it corresponds to well settled principles of the recognition of judgments to substitute the operative part of the foreign judgment by a formula which comes close to it. This (positive) option is totally missing in the formalistic judgment of the Federal Civil Court. In this respect I’m wondering why the BGH did not simply order that the operative part of the Polish judgment as such was declared enforceable. My proposed wording of a declaration of enforceability would be drafted as follows: “According to the judgment of the Appellate Court of Krakow the ZDF is required to publish the following decision:…”
This solution would have solved the problem: No constitutional conflict would have arisen and the political issues would have mitigated. Seen from that perspective, the judgment appears as a missed opportunity.