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Top German court allows protest against lockdown

Kate Martyr
April 16, 2020

A small, socially-distanced protest against coronavirus restrictions will now go ahead in the German city of Giessen after organizers received at least tacit support from the highest court in the country.

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Image: Africa Studio - Fotolia.com

Germany's Constitutional Court on Thursday partially upheld a group's bid to demonstrate in public against the coronavirus restrictions in the small town of Giessen, near Frankfurt.

The Federal Constitutional Court did not demand that the previously banned protest, which had taken a motto of "strengthen health, don't weaken rights — protect against the virus, not people," must go ahead. Instead, it ruled that the existing court bans were not acceptable and called on local authorities to reconsider the case themselves. 

Very soon after the ruling, Giessen Mayor Peter Neidel told German national broadcaster ARD that the protest would be permitted without further court attention.

There were some caveats, though: authorities would only allow 15 participants, not the roughly 30 organizers had applied for; all participants would be required to wear face masks and keep at least 1.5 meters away from each other and the protest would also be limited to a duration of one hour.

Does the two-person limit in public constitute a blanket ban?

The case revolved around the various courts' interpretations of Germany's current rule forbidding public meetings of more than two people who do not live in the same household. 

Two lower courts had taken this temporary rule on everyday social interaction to effectively constitute a blanket ban on all public demonstrations. 

The Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe disagreed, however, saying that in the context of such a specific appeal, courts still had some "leeway" to weigh the current health restrictions against the right to freedom of assembly. On the basis that the lower courts had not done this, it asked Giessen to reconsider its verdict.

Read more:  A nitty-gritty look at Germany's loosened coronavirus lockdown rules

A 'socially distanced' demonstration?

Organizers, part of the group "Traffic change in and around Giessen," planned to hold the two demonstrations on April 16 and 17. They said there would be a limit of 30 participants per protest and that protesters would keep apart and wear face masks.

To reinforce social distancing, rather than assembling for speeches, speakers would instead dictate their messages into their smart phones as audio messages for others to listen to. The organizers had also offered to consider any further measures authorities deemed necessary.

The Constitutional Court found that city authorities had not sufficiently considered these assurances put in place by the organizers seeking to ensure the demonstration would comply with coronavirus health guidelines.

"[We] won – the Federal Constitutional Court lifts the demo-ban!!!!" wrote the organizers in a Facebook post.

The group said a larger demonstration would take place on April 17 in Berliner Platz in the city center. The planned theme of that demonstration will be: "Fridays for basic and human rights," in a rather obvious play on the Fridays for Future climate movement linked to Greta Thunberg.

Read more:  Opinion: Germany's coronavirus lockdown policy gets complicated

A similar injunction seeking an emergency right to demonstrate in Munich failed last week in the same court, in part because it was submitted too late for the court to intervene.

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