BERLIN (AP) — A German official who won a defamation case against Twitter this week dedicated his legal victory to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert targeted by the microblogging site’s new owner, Elon Musk.
A Frankfurt regional court ruled Wednesday that Twitter has to remove false or defamatory tweets about Michael Blume, who is the southwest German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg’s commissioner against antisemitism. Crucially, the court made clear that the order applies not only to identical posts but also to any that are substantially similar.
Blume told The Associated Press on Thursday that he wanted to dedicate the successful outcome of his case to Fauci, to send a signal that Twitter “can’t simply let people be trolled and stalked for years.”
“When even Elon Musk himself lets trolls loose on a scientist, then that’s disturbing,” he said. “I believe that’s just wrong.”
Musk recently called for Fauci, a leading figure in the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to be prosecuted. His tweet was warmly applauded by users opposed to the U.S. pandemic response, with some posting images of Fauci wearing prison garb or in a coffin.
Blume had taken Twitter to court in Germany after users of the platform suggested he had “a closeness to pedophilia,” of committing adultery, and being involved in “antisemitic scandals,” according to a court statement. Blume rejects all those claims as false and states that he acted after some Twitter users targeted his wife and children, too.
Judges concluded that Twitter should have removed those comments as soon as it was notified. While the descriptions of Blume as antisemitic could be covered by free speech laws, the court ruled that in this case they weren’t intended to contribute to public debate but clearly designed as part of an emotional smear campaign. Failure to remove such posts in future can result in fines of up to 250,000 euros ($268,000).
The ruling doesn’t require Twitter to monitor everything all of its 237 million users write, but the company does need to deleted similar defamatory tweets, the court said.
It also ruled that posts which note Blume appeared on a “Global Anti-Semitism Top Ten” by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles last year were permissible statements of fact. The list has been strongly criticized by German officials and Jewish representatives in Germany.
“Regardless of whether (Blume’s) inclusion in the list is justified, information on it can be provided,” the court said. “The antisemitism commissioner needs to defend himself against that in the public opinion battle.”
Blume’s lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, said the ruling provides others who have faced similar smears on Twitter with legal ammunition to bring their own cases against the company.
The same court issued a similar ruling against Facebook’s parent company Meta in April.
“If someone wants a quick injunction against Twitter or Facebook, they would simply need to go to the same court,” said Jun, a prominent tech lawyer. “There’s a path that’s been beaten here and now it’s of course easier to follow.”
Wednesday’s verdict can be appealed within a month.
Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment.