In its judgement of 15 September 2015 the German Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof - BGH) has decided that a pupil’s personality rights were violated when a teacher published a book in which she describes the pupil’s classroom behaviour (Case VI ZR 175/14).
In the present case, a teacher published a book, in which she wrote about events that she had experienced at school. In one chapter, the teacher also wrote about a specific pupil. The pupil wanted to skip the 2nd grade. So she joined the teacher’s 3rd grade class to try to see if she was ready to skip a class.
In her book, the teacher mentioned the pupil’s name and described her as an open-minded girl who had not been mature enough to be moved to 3rd grade. The teacher went on to say that the girl was socially underdeveloped and that she reacted to her situation by feeling unhappy and offended. The teacher also described that the pupil had problems in writing, reading, maths and English.
Following several press reports about the book, the pupil asked for an injunction, being represented by her parents in the court proceedings. She felt that the chapter had stigmatised her as a wannabe gifted pupil, who was neither intelligent enough nor socially skilled enough to skip a class. She claimed that she had been violated in her personal rights. The teacher, however, stated that the book could not have violated any personal rights as the events had already been reported on in press articles before the book had even been published.
The previous instance, the Higher Regional Court in Cologne (Oberlandesgericht – OLG Cologne) had dismissed the pupil’s action (judgement of 11 March 2014, Case 15 U 153/13).
While the OLG Cologne stated that in fact the girl’s privacy was worthy of protection. It decided that the girl’s right to privacy did not outweigh the teachers right of freedom of opinion, as this was a special case. After the pupil had asked to be moved from 1st to 3rd grade, and the teacher had evaluated whether she was ready, the teacher refused to move her and got into a conflict with the girl’s mother. The girl’s mother herself then arranged for press articles about the conflict to be published.
The BGH, however, did not follow the decision of the OLG Cologne and decided in favour of the pupil. The Court stated that the protection of the girl’s personal rights outweighed the teacher’s freedom of opinion. As the girl had been twelve years old when the book was published, the Court pointed out that her personality was still developing, and therefore, it was in need of high protection. In this regard, the judges found that the book affected her child-oriented development. The Court also stated that previous press articles did not justify a violation of the pupil’s personal rights, because the articles had not been known by a large part of the public before the book had been published. And therefore, the teacher should at least not have published the pupil’s name.