The Federal Court of Justice considered two cases dating from August 2018 in which Facebook deleted comments aimed at Muslim migrants and people of immigrant origin and suspended the users’ accounts. It ordered the company to restore the posts.
Facebook was not entitled to delete the posts or suspend accounts under its conditions of use, which specifically bar users from breaching “community standards” and ban “hate speech”, the court ruled.
The decision is striking because hate speech that threatens the peace or incites violence against minority groups is banned under German law.
The ruling complicates the work of antiracism campaigners who have demanded swift action from the social media company.
In Germany, there is a national election this year and already a fraught debate rages over toxic discourse on social networks.
In the UK, black England football stars suffered online racial abuse after missing penalties at the Euro 2020 football tournament, and in the US, gymnast Simone Biles came under attack when she pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics.
Facebook is entitled in principle to set standards that go above and beyond legal requirements and to reserve the right to delete posts and suspend accounts, the court said.
In its three-page summary, the court said that Facebook's terms of service regarding the deletion of posts and blocking accounts for breaching its community standards were “null and void".
This, it said, was because Facebook does not undertake to inform the user, even retrospectively, about the removal of an offensive post, give advance notice of plans to suspend an account, or offer the right of appeal.
Facebook said it would review the judgment to ensure that it can continue to effectively remove hate speech in Germany.
“We have zero tolerance for hate speech, and we’re committed to removing it from Facebook,” a company representative said.
The main post in question, which was reproduced in the court ruling, alleged that “Islamist immigrants” are free to murder with impunity in Germany.
Germany recently beefed up a hate-speech law that first came into force in 2018 and requires platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to police and take down toxic content.
Google this week requested a judicial review of a new provision in the law, known in Germany as NetzDB, saying it compromised privacy because data can be passed to law enforcement before it is evident a crime has been committed.