Germany: German university in Mainz has to release sponsor-contracts worth several millions

by Ingo Beckendorf
The German Johannes Gutenberg-university in Mainz is obliged, to release its contracts with a sponsor to a journalist. That was decided by verdict of the Mainzer administrative court on May 11th 2016 (Az.: 3 K 636/15).

In the case, the chief-reporter of the German public broadcaster “Südwestrundfunk” (SWR), Thomas Leif, brought an action against the university for the release of documents regarding the cooperation-contracts between the pharmaceutical cooperation Boehringer-Ingelheim and the university.

The contract-partner of the university, the society Boehringer Ingelheim, is the biggest researching pharma-cooperation in Germany. The owners donated 100 million Euro to the university in 2009 via the Boehringer Ingelheim foundation, and again 50 million Euro in 2013. The money should be used to support an institute for molecular biology, and the university department of biology. In return, the German district Rheinland-Pfalz payed over 50 million Euro for building measures and infrastructure. The university refused to give the files to the journalist, arguing their right to freedom of science.

Based on the decision by the judges in Mainz, Leif is now allowed to see the files. But, he will not get copies of those documents, he will only get access to them. The main reason for the decision of the administrative court was the fact, that the university had already shown the contract to three selected journalists in the summer of 2015. At this time, the president of the university himself explained the content of the contract to the journalists, but Thomas Leif was not one of those journalists. The Court stated that therefore, there was no interest in confidentiality by the university anymore. An appeal against the verdict isn’t allowed.

The German union of journalists agrees with the court’s decision. This case would show that cooperations between universities and private companies should not stay secret. The Boehringer-Ingelheim-foundation also praised the judges for their clear decision. A foundation-member pointed out, they would not intent to interfere with the universities matters. The advocate of the journalist, Carl Christian Müller of the law firm MMR in Berlin, also complimented the verdict: Any other decision would have been a violation against press freedom and journalistic equality principles. Now, that the contract worth 150 million Euro will be released, politics and federations would also see the sneaky privatisation of universities,

Ingo Beckendorf is scientific assistant in the Institute of European Media Law (EMR) in Saarbrücken/Brüssel.