A ruling by the Higher Regional Court of Schleswig-Holstein shows that dissatisfied customers have a wide latitude in how they criticize companies on the Internet. In case of doubt, freedom of expression precedes the protection of the reputation of the criticized. […]
The frustration over a broken real estate deal apparently led an Internet user to make an unflattering comment about a real estate agent in a comment on Google Places. This broker had registered his company on Google Places and was so open to reviews from customers – or those who almost became it.
Haggling over the price
In the specific case, which the Higher Regional Court of Schleswig-Holstein had to decide now (judgment of 16.02.2022, Az. 9 U 134/21), the complaining real estate agent had offered an object for sale. An interested party had indicated an offer that was significantly lower than the requested purchase price and asked to be forwarded to the seller. The broker is said to have rejected this with the remark that he will not forward any dubious offers.
Another offer from the interested party – also below the sum requested in the exposé – was also unsuccessful. The object was eventually sold to another buyer – at a higher price.
However, the process had unpleasant consequences for the real estate agent: the hapless prospective customer retaliated with a 1-star rating and negative descriptions about the real estate agency. The broker appeared “arrogant and unhelpful”, and he is said to have said “You are a customer when you have bought”.
The broker did not want to leave this assessment and sued the author for an injunction, first at the regional Court of Flensburg, then at the Higher Regional Court of Schleswig-Holstein.
Freedom of speech is harder
Both courts dismissed the broker’s lawsuit. It is true that the description of a business partner as arrogant and unhelpful is suitable for violating his general social claim of validity and also his business honor in particular. However, the chosen words clearly marked the assessment as a personal expression of opinion, which is under the protection of Article 5 of the Basic Law.
Another factor in the judges’ verdict: the broker himself had created the basis for customer comments by listing his company on Google Places. If he wanted to avoid such, he would have to forego a corresponding presentation of his services at Google.
*Frank Kemper headed the print edition of INTERNET WORLD BUSINESS from 2013 to 2020. The graduate of the German School of Journalism in Munich can look back on over 30 years of editorial experience and has been online for almost as long.