Germany's New Online Hate Speech Law Faces First Legal Challenge

Beatrix von Storch

Police are investigating allegations against two members of Germany's far-right party after Twitter and Facebook blocked their controversial posts.

The new year has barely begun, but Germany's tough new law governing online hate speech and fake news already faces its first legal challenge.

Police are investigating two members of Germany's far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), following a controversial tweet by one that called Muslim men “barbaric” and given to “gang-raping.”

Beatrix von Storch, the AfD's deputy leader, posted the offending tweet New Year's Eve after Cologne police tweeted a traditional message in several languages, including German, French, English and Arabic. The message wished the people of Cologne and the neighboring city of Leverkusen, along with everyone else, a happy new year.

In her tweet, Von Storch slammed the police for tweeting in Arabic, accusing them of trying to appease “barbaric, gang-raping Muslim hordes of men.” Two years ago on New Year's Eve in Cologne, there were hundreds of reported sexual assaults and robberies committed by groups of young men, mostly non-German migrants. The assaults included 24 alleged rapes.

Twitter deleted von Storch's post and temporarily suspended her account, saying the tweet breached the platform's rules on hate speech. A tweet from Alice Weidel, another AfD parliamentarian, supporting von Storch, was also blocked by Twitter in Germany. In the message, Weidel accused the authorities of submitting “to imported, marauding, groping, beating, knife-stabbing migrant mobs.” Other AfD members who tweeted similar messages in support also had their tweets deleted. Von Storch reposted her tweet on Facebook but it was removed from that platform as well.

Under the law that took full effect in Germany on Monday, social media sites, including Twitter and Facebook, can be fined as much as $60 million (50 million euro) if they fail to quickly remove hate speech and fake news posts distributed on their sites. The law gives companies 24 hours to remove posts that breach Germany's strict anti-hate speech laws after they are flagged by users.

The law came into force in October, but the government gave companies three months to adjust to the new rules. Supporters have welcomed the legislation as a means of bringing online speech in line with German laws curbing hate speech in print. Critics see it as a form of government censorship.  

Cologne police say they have received “hundreds” of criminal complaints against von Storch and Weidel and are investigating the two politicians to see whether they should be charged with the crime of incitement to hatred.

The German law firm Repgow filed its own criminal complaint against the Cologne police, claiming the investigation is unwarranted. The complaint says von Storch's tweet does not constitute hate speech because, the firm argues, it is not directed at “Arabs or Muslims but rather criticizes the behavior of the police.”

Returning to Twitter after her ban, von Storch said the Twitter and Facebook blocks amounted to “the end of the constitutional state.” It was a claim backed by the co-heads of her party, Alexander Gauland and Jorg Meuthen, who compared the new law to “the methods of the Stasi” under the communist government of East Germany. 

In a further twist to the story, a tweet by German satire magazine Titanic parodying the von Storch tweet has also been banned from Twitter. The Titanic tweet, supposedly from “guest twitterer” Beatrix von Storch, was also directed at the Cologne police: “You know what Twitter means in Arabic? Yeah? Phooey! I don't — the last thing I want is mollified barbaric Muslim, gang-raping male hordes!”

Titanic on Wednesday said it would provide asylum for von Storch, whom the magazine called “a persecuted fighter for inhuman rights.” Titanic editor-in-chief Tim Wolff claimed to be “shocked” by the impact of the new law and that his magazine would no longer be willing “to help in the left-wing, ecological reeducation of respectable, worried (German) citizens.”

The German association of journalists, the DJV, has criticized Twitter's blocking of Titanic as the kind of attack on press freedom the group warned would be the result of the new law.

"A commercial company, based in the United States is determining the limits of the freedom of the press and expression in Germany," said DJV federal chairman Frank Uberall, who called for the German government to "delete" the new law.