Better watch your tongue when you're in Germany

May 23, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

BERLIN -- In Germany, it might be a good idea to consult your lawyer before you squabble with a neighbor about a parking space.

Rocco Klotsche certainly will the next time.

The 27-year-old student was fined $120 for losing his temper during a quarrel in the parking lot behind his apartment house. No threats were made, no weapons were drawn; nothing weightier than words flew across the parking lot. But the neighbor was able to sue -- and win -- on the grounds that Mr. Klotsche had "insulted his honor" by calling him a dirty name.

Such are the strictures of a widely used German law that allows you to be sued, even criminally prosecuted, for what Americans might consider minor breaches of etiquette. It is the "Beleidigungsgesetz," the insult law.

"Insult is the illegal attack on the honor of another person through intentional expression of disrespect," the law states.

In Berlin alone, 2,262 people were convicted of insult violations in the most recent year for which complete court records are available.

"It is really a stupid law, but it is good for business. It keeps the lawyers and judges busy," says Andreas Just, a Berlin lawyer who frequently represents defendants in insult cases. "People seem to get more andmore sensitive every year, so they exercise their right to sue."

Under the insult law, it is not only curse words that are prohibited.

Insulting gestures are also verboten -- showing the middle finger or in some cases even sticking out the tongue can get you in trouble. (A warning for Americans: making a circle with the thumb and forefinger,

as though to indicate "OK," means something naughty in Germany.)

It can even be deemed insulting to improperly use "du," the familiar form of the word "you," instead of the polite form, "Sie."

Case histories are replete with creative insults such as "dumme Kuh" (stupid cow), "Kartoffelbauch" (potato belly), "Nazischwein" (Nazi pig), "alte Hexe" (old witch).

In a recent case that provoked much ridicule, a German author was sued over a book review in a daily newspaper, Frankfurter Rundschau, in which he described a district attorney as an "Ochsenfrosch," an "oxenfrog."

"If you called George Bush a wimp . . . nobody would take it seriously," says Peter Koerte, editor of the newspaper's culture page. "This was just a little frog, neither good nor bad."

The law dates to the late 19th century. Although many younger Germans consider it hopelessly stodgy and anti-libertarian, its use is thriving.

Often, criminal insult cases are filed by public prosecutors, especially if the insulted party is a police officer or other public servant or if the case is thought to be in the public interest.

Tom Kormicki, an investment banker, was prosecuted criminally after a 1991 dispute outside a Berlin farmers market. He said that he was sitting in his car waiting for a friend when an elderly man threatened to report him to the police for double parking.

"Fine, I'll spell my name for you, K-O-R-M-I-C-K-I," he says he told the elderly man.

"What is that, a Polish name?" the man asked him.

"What are you? A Stasi informant?" Mr. Kormicki says he responded, referring to the despised secret police that terrorized the former East Germany.

Mr. Kormicki says that his mistake was that he raised his voice, speaking loudly enough for witnesses to hear. He initially was ordered to pay about $1,200, but a lawyer negotiated down to $300.

Mr. Kormicki says he later tried to sue someone who had given him the finger but failed for lack of witnesses.

Hans-Georg Doerring, who published a study of insult cases brought in the 1970s in three German cities, found that many of the suits involved neighbors, with the most common points of contention being parking spaces and screaming children.

The study also found a disproportionate number of lawsuits filed during the annual Oktoberfest, Germany's famous beer-guzzling holiday.

Often, the insult law is used by public figures. Last month, a German court fined a German rock band $35,000 for insulting tennis star Steffi Graf with song lyrics that alleged that she had had an incestuous relationship with her father.

German prosecutors have used provisions of the law to crack down on right-wing radicals and on anti-Semitism.

Still, the legal system makes some allowances. The courts have held that husbands and wives, children and parents can insult one another freely in private without fear of lawsuits.

What distinguishes the insult cases from those brought under U.S. libel or slander laws is that plaintiffs in the United States must show that they have been damaged by the action -- not merely that their feelings were hurt.

"Germany, in light of its Nazi heritage, is more willing to tolerate restrictions on speech to preserve a sense of democratic order," says Mary Anne Case, who teaches constitutional law and European legal systems at the University of Virginia.

Germans find the permissiveness in the United States baffling.

"You mean you could just go around calling somebody an idiot and that's allowed?" asked Gabrielle Hornewicz, a Berliner who works at a U.S. military base.

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