In a surprise ruling that brings a nearly two-decade long legal battle to a close, Germany's top judges found an "exception" to the right to assembly when it came to some neo-Nazi activities.
Neo-Nazi marchers are frequently unwanted guests
Ever since the first anniversary of the death of the Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess in 1988, neo-Nazis have attempted to gather in his Bavarian hometown of Wunsiedel to honor him.
And since 1990, when running street battles between leftists and skinheads erupted at the march, the German state has tried to ban them.
Tuesday's ruling at the constitutional court in Karlsruhe appears to have ended the conflict, with the neo-Nazis coming out on the losing end.
The court said that a 2005 "anti-sedition" law banning gatherings which expressed "approval, glorification, or justification" of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist regime was compatible with Germany's constitution.
Germany's high court changed its course
The ruling is a turnabout from 2001, when the court struck down the ban that had kept the Wunsiedel marchers from rallying since 1991. At that time, the court said that an expression of opinion could be banned only if it amounted to the incitement to riot. Germany's Social Democrat and Green party government then passed the new ban four years later.
The complaint against the law had been brought by Juergen Rieger, an attorney who was deputy chairman of Germany's leading far right party, the National Democratic Party (NPD), which is strongly associated with the neo-Nazi scene.
Rieger had applied each year for a march permit in Wunsiedel, and he had hoped that the high court would strike down the ban as unconstitutional. Rieger did not live to see the ruling - he died on October 29th of this year.
Instead, the court set down a new precedent which enshrines a firm constitutional exception for limiting the expression of opinion which praises "National Socialism's actual, historical period of violent and capricious rule."
Still, the judges said there was little room for the ban to widen. Speech praising National Socialist philosophy in general could not be banned, and the court suggested that such ideas must be met "in free political discourse."
Boosters and critics
Rieger was one of the Right's leading lights
While few in Germany ally themselves with neo-Nazi marchers, and counter-demonstrators regularly far outnumber their political opponents, the ruling has drawn a mixed response.
Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann, a member of the center-right Christian Social Union, told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper that the ruling "strengthens my hand in the fight against the NPD and their anti-constitutional goals."
He added that an outright ban on the NPD "remained near the top" of his political agenda.
The left-progressive national paper tageszeitung, meanwhile, led with a commentary from its legal affairs correspondent Christian Rath. He attacked the ruling as having established a two-tiered system of free speech, and compared the "exception" in assembly rights as it applied to the extreme right as akin to controversial restrictions in civil rights imposed on suspected terrorists.
Rath also argued that Germany should not need special bans on Nazi expressions anymore.
"After six decades of stable democracy, a special curtailing of rights against the far right is not a powerful gesture of a new beginning; it provides a specious cover for an intrinsically unconstitutional law."
Editor: Michael Lawton