The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Twitter user insulted a German politician. Police then raided his house.

A train station in Hamburg, Germany, on Sept. 2. (Fabian Bimmer/Reuters)

It was 6 a.m. when six German police officers came knocking on the door of a Twitter user in Hamburg. What sparked the investigation: a tweet he wrote in June calling a German official a crude term that refers to male genitalia.

The raid Wednesday came a little over three months after he replied to a tweet from Andy Grote, the interior and sports minister for the city of Hamburg, describing him as a “pimmel.”

The public prosecutor’s office in Hamburg told The Washington Post it was handling an investigation of an online “insult,” which can be punished under a section of the German criminal code.

But the police search unleashed a stream of outraged comments and sarcastic memes from Germans on social media, inspiring the hashtag #Pimmelgate which was trending Thursday on Twitter.

“My house was searched at 6:00 this morning. Six officers in the apartment,” wrote the suspect, who goes by the screen name “ZooStPauli” and has not otherwise identified himself. “They know there are two young children living in this household. Good morning Germany.”

The Hamburg police confirmed to The Post that it had searched the house of the Twitter user behind the @pauli_zoo handle early Wednesday to “gather evidence". A police official said six officers were dispatched and searched a device, without giving more details.

A spokeswoman for the public prosecutor’s office said the complaint was not filed under a controversial 2018 social media law to curb online hate speech.

Incitement and defamation laws are far broader in Germany than in the United States, with some European legislation on the books that forbids defaming leaders and makes Holocaust denial a crime. Still, even by those standards, many saw the police raid as an overreach.

It was not immediately clear whether the politician, Grote, had filed a complaint to prompt the search warrant. His office did not reply to a request for comment; neither did the center-left Social Democratic Party to which he belongs. The party has a candidate running for German chancellor in elections at the end of the month.

“It is arguably actionable, that kind of invective against politicians. But this house search caused a lot of protest,” said German professor Jeanette Hofmann, research director at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. “Lots of people saw what this person wrote as completely harmless — compared to what you find on the Internet and all the death threats, particularly against minorities and women. This is laughable.”

The case sparked so much uproar — and so many jokes — that it was unlikely to go to court, Hofmann said. Still, she added, it remains “notoriously difficult” to toe the line between digital rights and regulation, with courts issuing different verdicts and governments failing to keep up with online content.

Google searches for “pimmel” from around the world went up in the past 24 hours.

After the visit from the police, messages of support poured in for the Hamburg resident, who appears to run social media for a bar there and describes himself online as “antifascist.” The Twitter user did not respond to a request for comment.

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