Germany: Supreme Court allows animal activists’ website to call for fur farm bank boycott due to freedom of expression

Katrin Welker
The German Supreme Court Bundesgerichtshof (BGH) has decided that a request to terminate the bank account of an interest group of fur farmers addressed to that group’s bank can be considered a legal call for boycott (AZ: VI ZR 302/15, 19 January 2016).

An animal rights association published an article on its website addressed to the bank of an interest group which represents fur farmers. In its article, the animal rights group asked the bank to terminate the bank account of group. The article was accompanied by representations of the housing conditions of animals. The association of fur farmers considered that call for boycott to be an unlawful interference with the group’s personal rights and filed an injunction against the publication of the article.

After the District Court (Landgericht Osnabrück, 14 November 2014, AZ: 12 O 625/14) had initially dismissed the action, the appeal to the Higher Regional Court was successful (Oberlandesgericht Oldenburg, 12 May 2015, AZ.: 13 U 102/14) and the injunction against the publication of the article was granted.

However, the Supreme Court decided in favour of the animal rights group and set aside the decision of the Higher Regional Court. Although the Supreme Court stated that the call for a boycott by the animal rights group violated the personal rights of the association of fur farmers, it had to balance these rights with the right to freedom of expression and opinion of the animal rights group enshrined in Art. 5 of the German Constitution and Art. 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Court stated that the disputed request to terminate the bank account in connection with the representation of the housing conditions of animals on the website of the animal rights group was a call for boycott protected by the freedom of expression, because it contributed to the public debate on animal rights, by expressing disapproval of the professional behaviour of fur farmers.

Furthermore, the Court emphasised the fact that the animal rights group asked for donations within the same publication. Thus, it did not only express an opinion, but also pursued economic interests with its publication. This did not lead to another outcome of the balance of interests. If an expression of opinion concerns an important issue of high public interest, the freedom of expression outweighs personal rights, even if economic consequences could occur as a side effect of a boycott call. This applies even if the economic consequences were intended from the outset.

Katrin Welker is a researcher at the Institute of European Media Law (EMR), Saarbrücken/Brussels.

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The judgment of the Supreme Court is available in German language here.