The Wikimedia Foundation is liable for the contents of Wikipedia articles but does not have to fact check the contents before they are published, the Higher Regional Court of Stuttgart ruled, a spokesman said Wednesday.
The appeals court ruled against Wikimedia in a libel case in early October but the detailed verdict was only published recently on the court’s website. In the German legal system it often takes several weeks for a written ruling to be published.
Articles on Wikipedia are written and altered by third parties and not checked by Wikimedia, which owns the site. Nonetheless, Wikimedia has a certain responsibility for the contents of those articles, the court ruled.
While Wikimedia does not have to check beforehand whether the contents of a Wikipedia article are true, it has a duty to check if somebody complains about the article, the court ruled. If someone complains about statements in an article, Wikimedia has to check them and if necessary remove the passages, the court said.
The libel case was brought by a man only identified as “H,” who owns a local TV station, according to the verdict. A German Wikipedia article stated that he had made the Hitler salute on television, and that he had trivialized sex with children in a counseling session. The article also stated that he intimidated his employees, subjected them to “brainwashing” and alleged that there was a “cult-like” atmosphere in the workplace, according to the verdict.
According to H, all these statements were false. He wanted the passages removed from Wikipedia, the verdict said.
The Wikipedia article was based on a newspaper article and the court noted that by reproducing it on Wikipedia, the allegations were spread, said court spokesman Stefan Schüler in an email. It is important to note that Wikimedia was not found liable for all reproduced statements, he said. Only the passages about the Hitler salute and the trivialized child sex remark were banned, not the parts about brainwashing and intimidation, he said.
“One must distinguish between facts and opinions. Facts can be determined. Opinions are opinions,” Schüler said. “During the trial it was undisputed that the factual allegations were untrue,” he said.
Wikimedia needs to start checking articles when factual contents are disputed but the court did not give any guidelines about how Wikimedia should do so, Schüler said. However, standard criteria for reporting on suspects in legal cases apply to Wikipedia articles, Schüler said. These standards are generally considered to include the presumption of innocence of a suspect in cases where a verdict has not yet been reached.
The court also did not specify any criteria for sources against which a disputed article has to be checked, Schüler said. This was not covered in the current case because it was undisputed that the factual allegations were false, he said.
Wikimedia was ordered to delete the false passages. If it does not comply, a punishment procedure can be brought against the company, Schüler said.
Wikimedia Germany did not respond to a request for comment.
Updated on November 28 to correct the name of the organization to which standard reporting guidelines apply.