A German court has ruled Dusseldorf's mayor had no right to cut outside lighting on public buildings during a right-wing rally. It also said he violated the law in urging citizens to participate in a counterprotest.
Rarely has turning off the lights been this contentious. On Wednesday, Germany's Federal Administrative Court announced that Dusseldorf Mayor Thomas Geisel's actions were against the law. Judges said he had no right to switch off the illumination of Dusseldorf's town hall and other public buildings ahead of a march by right-wing group Dügida (Dusseldorf Residents Against the Islamization of the West) in 2015. They also found he acted against the law when he called on citizens to join a counterprotest.
The verdict is a win for Melanie Dittmer, Dügida's former head organizer, who had sued against the mayor's actions.
The court stated that an office holder in a democracy is neither allowed to influence the process of public opinion forming, nor to make statements that discriminate against people with viewpoints different from his own. The judges saw Geisel's call to participate in the counterprotest as a violation of this principle.
They also said Geisel had no right to turn off public lighting, nor to ask retailers to do the same. The act represented a step outside the mayor's right to "objectively and rationally deal with Dusseldorf matters."
What was the 'Lights out' initiative?
On January 12, 2015, Geisel, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), turned off outside illumination of Dusseldorf's town hall, the Rhine Tower and the old castle tower ahead of a Dügida march. The step, along with a call to Dusseldorf retailers and citizens to join the "Lights out" initiative, was a symbolic move against the xenophobic Dügida group.
The initial verdict
In November 2016, a previous verdict in the case that was handed down by a higher administrative court stated Geisel was well within his rights when he called on Dusseldorf citizens to participate in the protest march to counter the Dügida rally.
But judges back then also decided that Geisel's "Lights out" initiative violated the rule of objectiveness. They said turning off the illumination went beyond his authority.
The mayor is allowed to deal with current events and issues taking place in Dusseldorf in a sober and objective manner, the court stated, but by turning off lights and calling on retailers and residents to darken their windows, Geisel "left the arena of political communication that is limited to intellectual discussion."
Why Geisel appealed
Geisel wasn't convinced by the judges' distinction that his "Lights out" initiative was illegal, while the call to join the counterprotest was alright. He pointed to Cologne, Hanover and Berlin, where public lights were also dimmed in advance of marches organized by PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West).
Local SPD politicians and other officials sided with their mayor after the initial verdict. One of them was Michael Szentei-Heise, the administrative director of the Jewish congregation in Dusseldorf, who said that political decency was more important than remaining sober and objective.
What is Dügida?
Dügida, a local offshoot of the anti-Muslim and xenophobic PEGIDA movement, was founded in 2014 but ceased to exist in December 2015, when head organizer Dittmer announced the end of the weekly Dügida protests.
In April 2016, Dittmer herself was given an eight-month suspended sentence after she was convicted of sedition. She had led a march that went past a mosque during prayer time, at which point she had yelled about Muslims being "Salafist pigs" and "pedophiles."
What is PEGIDA?
PEGIDA began as a series of Monday-night marches in Dresden in late 2014 and gathered serious momentum in early 2015, when the demonstrations attracted some 20,000 protesters every week - plus international media attention and so many counterdemonstrators that the events occasionally turned ugly.
Since then, the movement has dissipated somewhat, with the number of supporters estimated at around 2,000 people, concentrated mostly in eastern Germany.
Participants in PEGIDA marches range from elderly eastern Germans disgruntled over economic stagnation to potentially violent neo-Nazis.
Why is this issue important now?
The court's decision comes less than two weeks before the German federal election. In the run-up to the vote, far-right groups and parties in Germany have garnered a lot of attention and popularity among voters.
PEGIDA (and former Dügida) supporters strongly oppose Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy. Many of them are likely to vote for the right-wing nationalist and populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which according to polls will be the third strongest party in the election.