Defamation

Defamation: Hotel review “chicken coop” is legal

A court in Germany has ruled that a hotel review describing the establishment as a “chicken coop” is acceptable. The court found that the statement did not amount to defamation (case ref.: 4 U 88/13).

Defamation: Hotel review “chicken coop” is legal © Africa Studio - Fotolia.com

Defamation: Hotel review “chicken coop” is legal © Africa Studio – Fotolia.com

Facts of the case

The owner of a hotel called “Landhotel Hühnerhof” (Chicken Run Country Hotel) sued the operator of a review website for enabling the publication of a review of the hotel describing it as a chicken coop. The hotel owner sought an injunction and compensation for the alleged defamatory statement.

The review further claims that the hotel’s four star restaurant is not worthy of such an accolade, that the reception was not manned and that the breakfast was catastrophic. The comment compares the general atmosphere at the hotel to that of a train station and finally labels the stay as unsatisfactory.

The hotel owner complained that the title of the review, “Not chicken run but chicken coop”, as well as the content of the review were defamatory. In the hotel owner’s opinion, the statements amounted to abusive criticism, as they conjure up connotations of “faeces and dirt”.

The court of first instance gave clear judgment on the claimant’s assertions:

“In contrast to the opinion given in the claimant’s many written submissions, the average reader associates the disputed statements with a chicken coop and not with dirt and faeces.

“Taken on its own, i.e. without the following statements in the review, and assessed in the context of the average reader’s understanding, the expression ‘chicken coop’ is not necessarily associated with dirtiness.

“This is demonstrated by the entry on Duden-online, which describes a chicken coop simply as a coop for chickens.

“Contrary to the expression ‘pigsty’, alternative interpretations of the words chicken coop have not developed. For example, Duden lists three meanings for the word ‘pigsty’: 1. A pen for pigs; 2a very untidy, dirty room; 2b. a dump.

“Using a play on words, the author made flippant remarks with the aid of alliteration in the aim of causing the reader to laugh and thus drawing attention to the title of the review and the following statements. The author chose satire to express his views.

“The author subsequently lists criticism of his stay at the hotel, and expresses his opinion as to why he did not believe it deserved four stars.”

Defamation rules

The claimant appealed to the Higher Regional Court of Stuttgart, but his appeal was rejected. The court stressed that the published statements were not an assertion of fact, but a value judgement. Such value judgments are, in the court’s opinion, protected by the right to freedom of expression under art. 5(1) of the German constitution (Grundgesetz). The statements therefore did not amount to defamation.

The court further noted that the descriptive part of the review was restricted to a headline only, and that this headline reflected the guest’s subjective assessment of the hotel. The content of the review, on the other hand, could not be considered defamatory.

In the court’s opinion, a critical or detracting statement becomes defamatory where it departs from the realms of debate and discussion and becomes a polemic and exaggerated criticism through which the defamation of the recipient is predominantly intended.

As the case carries no fundamental legal importance and does not contribute to the further development of the law or to developing uniformity in the case law, the Stuttgart court did not see the need for a higher court ruling on the matter and therefore refused permission for the case to be appealed further.

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Christian Solmecke is a partner at the law firm WILDE BEUGER SOLMECKE. He is the author of numerous legal publications in the area of internet and IT law. He is also an associate lecturer for social media law at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

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