Symposium "How Free Is Art?" Goethe-Institut Beirut, 11.-12.11.2007
Keynote Lecture

Roland Seim

Censorship Shall Not Take Place - Even in Popular Culture?
An Introduction to the Current Situation in Germany.

Thanks to the Goethe Institut


Dear colleagues, dear audience,

first of all I would like to thank the Goethe-Institut and Dr Norbert Spitz very much for the friendly invitation to the wonderful city of Beirut. I am very honored to give this key note lecture for our symposium.

I apologize not to make a free speech on free speech. But it's better to read good than to speak bad English.






Abstract: My paper deals with the issue of free speech versus censorship. It shows us some cases of interdicted media objects and explains the conflicts of free expression. Furthermore it examines both the impact of censorship and the fascination of banned objects. The censors and fans of such material are bonded together in a kind of a symbiotic relationship. The paper shows that restrictions are accepted by the majority but proves both intolerable and fascinating for the fans of the bizarre. While banning explicit material may be ineffective, it clearly delineates socio-cultural boundaries and renders standards of our media use explicit in this controversial debate.

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear", George Orwell wrotes in Animal Farm.

Every society has its own sensitivities, taboos, boundaries, and degrees of freedom. So, the difficult topic "freedom of media, art and expression versus censorship" is not only a problem of dictatorships or fundamentalistic regimes. This text wants to explore, that even Western democracies try to gain influence against unwanted contents, although it is not so politically violent as in other regions.

Some of the main questions are: Is there censorship in Germany, and if, how does it work? Does it make sense? Which topics are forbidden? Why is banned material so fascinating?

The most constitutions guarantee the right of personal freedom and free expression of opinion as a result of the Enlightenment, written down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Lebanese politican Charles Malik was a co-author of. (Art. 19: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression..."). In Germany Art. 5 of our "Basic Law" (1949) promises: Art is free, and, a censorship shall not take place.

But, how tolerant can we be when faced with intolerance? What about hate speech, pornography, media violence, right-wing extremist or terrorist propaganda, blasphemy, xenophobic slander, libels and so on, even when they occur in literature or in a work of art in a wider sense? This is a complicated issue. German constitution tries to resolve this dilemma by installing some restraints: "These rights are limited only by the regulations of general law, legal regulations on the protection of juveniles and the rights of personal honor." Many sections of the German criminal code forbid the named offences. Every state and government, even if open-minded and liberal, restrict offensive contents more or less by law. The problem is, how to draw juridically the line between art and crime. Are jurists and judges really able to define what art is and what should be allowed in culture?

A censor, the dictionary informs us, is an official who examines books, movies, etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, religious, or other grounds. Technically speaking there are external and internal kinds and three methods of censorship, I call it "weapons of mass media destruction":

1. Pre-censorship: Prior restraint and preclearance; deleting or softening material before broadcasting or publishing. This occurs in the several self-regulation boards of the movies, PC-games, television and so on.

2. Self-censorship: the internalization of the "scissors in your head" to avoid trouble is difficult to prove, because we have no comparison between the original and the reducted version. Mostly a type of economic censorship.

3. Post-censorship: after publication, objectionable material can be put on the index by the Bundesprüfstelle (Office for the Control of Publications Harmful to Youth), or can be totally banned by court including seizure and confiscation. Restrictions, however, are in force for the more than 80 million citizens of Germany. Any individual can institute legal proceedings against dubious media products at any youth welfare department. All bans are mentioned in the lists of the official organ "BPjM Aktuell".

The Censors and Their Objects
Censorship can be understood as a kind of cultural regulation. As with any other reasonable measure, censorship must try to balance the claims of the common good against the claims of individual freedom. In general, censorship as a mandatory requirement depends on the commonsensical application of contemporary community standards, mentality, and conventions; in particular, it is implemented according to the taste and character of individual readers and viewers. But even the censors act on their own subjective tastes to prevent feared anti-social attitudes and actions when they assess the intention and the possible effects of cultural objects they examine. Even a few objectionable sequences or pages that epitomize, so to speak, the bad-taken out of context-could be sufficient to ban an entire film or book. But there are at least two sides to everything. One person's obscenity is another person's bedtime reading. Art or morbid filth? Finally, it's a question of practical ethics and aesthetics as to whether one accepts and permits or condemns and banishes crass descriptions of the physical aspect of the body for example.

Most intrusive censorship is supported as taking place in the interests of protecting young people. These censors are likely convinced that they are performing a positive service to society. They have to believe that no social system-even a pluralistic democracy-can allow their members total and absolute freedom of informational interchange or they could not do their work.

Insofar as the criteria censors use to distinguish between prohibition and permissible tolerance are in flux, censoring authorities must rely on all sorts of tacit assumptions of propriety in assessing how to do their work. Even today in the liberated time of a postmodern "anything goes" climate, the government feels the necessity to put the 'kabosh' on the free flow of certain kinds of information. Decision makers must cope with the problem of determining what would be harmful to minors or might endanger social stability. Many laws prohibiting modes of expression in literature, films and other media thought to be depraved or corrupt are currently deemed valid, but the application of these laws may be questionable. Even if there does not exist a major official or state-supervised agency concerned with pre-censorship in Germany as the Securité Générale (at least until 2005) in Lebanon, many authorities closely scrutinize the limits of liberty. Only the FSK (Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft), the German voluntary self-regulating Board of Film Classification, performs a pre-censorship assessment because all movies are required to be submitted before their first showing.

Above all, the courts and the so called "Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien - BPjM" (a unique federal Office for the Control of Publications Harmful to Youth) can take action against disapproved items by putting them on its index to prevent minors from coming into contact with possibly harmful material. They remain at least for 25 years on it, before cancelled ex officio. Special committees with from 3 to 12 mostly honorary members of socially-relevant interest groups, such as churches, youth welfare organizations, teachers, publishers and distributors decide if an item should be placed on the index. As we shall see, it's a two-headed monster because some fans of censorable material use the index as a kind of shopping list.

What nearly nobody knows: About 15,000 videos, books, comics, records, computer games, Internet contents, and so on are restricted by virtue of being on this black list. These items therefore are forbidden to minors because some censors deemed that viewing such material would result in "social-ethic disorientation" or wrong moral concepts due to explicit obscenity, sex, drugs, violence, occultism, encouragement of suicide, or political extremism. Indexed things may not be advertised or sent via the mail. Most media content that is banned, comes from foreign countries, in the area of literature for example were put on the index: Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Dan Kavanagh's (Julian Barnes) Duffy, and Timothy Leary's Politics of Ecstasy. All these bans pose challenges for fans of interdicted items.

Additionally about 600 books, films, records etc. are totally banned in Germany even for adults according to a court decision. Even if Article 5 of the German Constitution establishes freedom of speech, many criminal and civil laws limit the possibilities of free expression. The reasons for prohibition are varied, such as: Hard core pornography under § 184 Criminal Code (about 200 objects banned), glorification of violence under § 131 (about 300 objects banned), libel or hate speech under § 130 (about 120 objects banned, especially Nazi propaganda and the so called "Auschwitz lie"). Any judge can make his own decision as what is to be banned nationwide for "antisocial harmfulness" (in German: "sozialschädlich"). But every isolated case is a matter for interpretation and many questionable decisions are inevitably made. The most recent case of a book ban by the Federal Constitutional Court refers to Maxim Billers novel "Esra". It gets forbidden because of violating the personal rights of the turkish protagonist, the author's ex-girl friend, because of describing intimate details of their relationship.

The main ground for book and record banning in Germany is Nazi propaganda, and I think this exception to the right to freedom of speech might be reasonable: More than hundred publications and records are forbidden for xenophobic incitement, hate speech, right-wing extremism, race hatred, vengeance theories of a Jewish conspiracy, or because they question the Holocaust or German war guilt. Showing the swastika is proscribed in popular cultural circumstances, except in clearly anti-fascistic purposes.

But even manuals for self-defense, like many books from the US publishers Paladin Press and Loompanics, have been seized by Canadian and German authorities, for example "Homemade Explosives", although it is "sold for informational purposes only". In the USA those books were unrestricted available because of the First Amendment; in Germany, they have been banned since 1991 because they contain instructions on how to commit criminal offenses. But I guess, after 9/11 especially the USA are more restrictive concerning titles as "Terrorist's Handbook" or "Anarchist's Cookbook". Security wins over free speech.

But it is questionable to condemn virtual reality artworks or the artificial fantasy world of the movies, literature and comics. Concerning motion pictures, the violation of human dignity by the depiction of graphic violence is the main reason for prohibition. Let me show you some examples of films that are prohibited in Germany: The Evil Dead by Sam Raimi has been banned in Germany since 1984. The censors passed this film only in an edited R-rated form), Halloween Part 2 (produced by John Carpenter), Phantasm (Don Coscarelli) and Braindead (Peter Jackson).

Music is no less subject to censorship than any other form of artistic expression. In the Eighties a lot of heavy metal records and covers were put on the index for violence. Some confiscated records are: Butchered at Birth (by the death metal band Cannibal Corpse) because of violent cover artwork, and Eating Lamb (by the US-Punk-Band NOFX, 1996) because of the depiction of sexual intercourse with an animal. The band issued two different versions of cover art. The LP version Eating Lamb was banned in Germany in 1996 because of "bestiality" ("sodomistic porn"), however the similar illustrated CD Heavy Petting Zoo was not. Currently, the explicit lyrics of rap music are under discussion because they advocate violence against women, show no dignity for people, and play down drug abuse. Dozens of titles are on the index. But silencing, even of music, is a world-wide problem.

A special case is the Internet, which is not as free as you might think. All websites, that are put on the German index (about 1,500, but this list is confidential and will not published since 2003), were filtered out and can not be found via search engines like Governments argue, that the Cyberspace shall not become a kind of lawless parallel-universe, so, monitoring and blocking takes place if needed. To catch terrorists, authority wants to implement a so called "federal trojan horse" on private computers for official online searches.

The Current Situation of Ambiguity
"Censorship happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their political or moral values on others by suppressing words, images, or ideas that they find offensive" says Marjorie Heins (p. 3). Censorship always has a Janus-face. It creates an odd scenario of ambiguity. On the one side, the government and many pressure groups try to suppress unacceptable media content within the bounds of human rights and constitutional law regarding freedom of speech, art and press. On the other side, forbidden things become rather attractive to many fans because of the specific thrill of interdiction. Michel Foucault once said that a ban makes a book valuable. This two-faced phenomenon of repressive control versus self-determination of mature users raises questions about how fans on the one side put into practice their fascination with breaking the taboo and, on the other side, why and how censors ban the items they select.

Let me go back to some basics reflections:
We are socialized by the different kinds of mass media that shape our view of life and influence our behavior. Socio-cultural experiences and associations do condition our opinions and preferences. Moreover, the contents of media are to some extent a kind of refractive mirror of society. How tolerant or restrictive we treat media reveals to us a significant part of our current socio-political situation and moral beliefs. But neither the official picture of the mainstream culture nor the research that often criticizes the portrayals of sex and violence in the media to justify control and censorship reveal the behavior of people who are fascinated by banned (and often strange) contents.

But even these materials are part of the cultural landscape, although they get rarely into the focus of academic interest, despite the fact that a huge number of theoretical studies have been written especially by jurists and social scientists. What is the quarrel between censorship and free speech all about? How are these deviant products of the media used by which kind of consumers in their everyday lives, and why are these items "media-worthy" for them? And, what point of view do the censors have? What is at stake in banning dubious contents, and what is at stake in allowing the free flow of uncensored media?

The Fascination of the Banned
The consumer has more rights to purchase what he or she wants than the producer has rights to spread his ideas, because the laws (and the risks) have always been aimed primarily at directors, authors, publishers or editors. In other words, the law does not forbid consumers from reading banned books or watching banned films (except child porn, possession of which alone is criminal) if you find or own one. However, sale and trade is prohibited so these items could be confiscated and the producers or distributors punished.

Violent media contents and latent sexualization seem to be quite common now. In the Fifties this issue of "Simplicissmus" - a German satire magazine - was punished for obscenity. Early sex educational books as "Helga and Bernd" had to show their item in a self-censored way. Today people are exposed to a constant stream of more or less questionable items. Cable networks, videotapes, computer games, and the Internet offer the possibility of getting anything you want. Anonymity ("Pretty good Privacy") and encryption technology ("FreeNet" or "TOR") could neutralize the ability to wiretap and to censor. In this confusing area, an index is unintentionally, of course, a point of departure helping some fascinated individuals to select what are probably the most exciting offers. Reading an index is like looking into an area that moralists see as the blackest depths of the human soul and the farthest reaches of society's underground. Already the disreputable circumstances and the feeling of doing something forbidden thrill and entice the fan. The motivation for getting curbed stuff may vary, but like a "Pavlovian Reflex" every authoritarian restriction on the publication and distribution of suspicious material inflames the desire among fans of the banned to know what one shouldn't know.

The mainstream with its social definitions of good taste, impose taboos and speech codes that become predictable and boring to the connoisseurs of the really thrilling stuff. They crave unfiltered, unfettered gore, so they set out searching for the suppressed. Banned films, books, comics, records and so on strongly attract the buffs who want to test the limits and explore the 'dark side' as a patterned evasion. Most of these fans may come from the middle-class, and are young and male. Research shows, that juvenile peer groups that come together for horror film watching sessions reflect elaborate codes of knowledge of film aesthetics and special effects and sophisticated interchange and involved behavioral style. Taste and habitus are not class-specific.

The notion of resistance, the fascination with violating taboos held by many young people is independent from official orders, rules and regulations concerning matters of taste. If a case of dubious suppression occurs, the public debate regarding the principles of free speech and human rights is dramatized for a short time in the feature pages, although most of those writers have apparently not seen or read banned material.

Beside the superstructure of the official opinion of political correctness and judicial bans, which mainly are approved by the "moral majority", there are many sub-cultural scenes where groups try to counteract the authorities and their blocking strategies. In Germany many lovers of deviant, profane media feel that the state is making up their minds for them. Barred objects become rather fascinating to many collectors of the weird, who want to know what the State suppresses. For those inquisitive persons every ban is a cue (signal) and every index serves as a compelling shopping list with the special incentive of the taboo to savor the forbidden fruit, a special prohibited and therefore hard-to-get rarity. The hunt for trophies.

In negating the act of banning, alternative ways of procuring materials, along with several strategies of circumventing the bans, have emerged, for example re-issues under false names, pirated editions and bootlegging on the black market, or imports of foreign versions. More open-minded and liberal countries such as the Netherlands or Belgium, where nearly no media censorship exists, became very appealing to fans. I would guess that it's impossible to eradicate a film if some copies survive, especially as Internet downloads.

Prohibition demands obedience, not understanding. Censorship demonstrates the power of the rulers, and, from the fans' point of view, deprives them of their own free will eliciting their resistance.

"Every taboo deals with an awakening to the dilemma of curiosity about something both attractive and dangerous," Roger Shattuck wrotes in his book Forbidden Knowledge.

We have found a complex situation among certain interest groups that some people may identify as an aberration from the normal use of the media, although the provocative topic of "eros and thanatos" is as old as culture itself. But the dialectical process linking ethics, moral reasoning and society are perpetually in tension over the issues of personal freedom vs. social responsibility. This essay concludes with a consideration of issues that enter into the debate on how divided and diverse societies decide what is permissible to broadcast.

The censors depend in their decision to cover, cut or prohibit special interest films, books etc. on a majority, who either agree or is indifferent. The examiners of the diverse governmental offices feel that they are just doing their jobs in the name of public mental hygiene. They often exhibit a sense of tedium regarding matters of taste, decency and hallowed icons. Most censors adopt a taken-for-granted, unreflective approach and do not recognize that their work depends on a variable "Zeitgeist", shifting boundaries of discretion, and changing values. When conventional tastes change they just find new codewords to obscure their underlying notions of moral and political decency.

On the other side there are the inquisitive fans who feel compelled to evade restrictions. In their view censorship is an undemocratic instrument of control. More importantly, it provides a way for them to experience some form of otherness. Censorship creates contra-cultural fandoms of people who are exhilarated by the act of negating what are actually minor proscriptions.

Of course, some regulating curbs may be necessary, especially on media contents that might constitute a "clear and present" danger.

You may ask, what is at stake in banning this filthy material? Well, who can decide for future generations which kind of media content is unworthy? One characteristic of censorship is that it is mundane and tacit so that its sphere of influence can be inconspicuous extended. The consequence could be that a few judges routinely decide what all others will be allowed to receive. But the voices of dissent still need to be heard, particularly those that are rarely found in the power positions of mainstream media. Cultural history suggests that formerly banned things often convey a sense of the everyday thinking and acting of the common people. That is, what is viewed as degraded, unworthy culture in an era may be more indicative of mundane lives than high culture and superior art, which reach only a small elite portion of the population.

I submit that an emancipatory practice might be a better way to master the problems posed by deviant, disturbing or dangerous content. In order to enhance the media competence/literacy and the power of discernment of both the fans and the censors, new ways of understanding sensitive materials are needed. A reasonable use of control and regulation (bans for instance in the cases of child porn or hateful, aggressive Nazi propaganda; restrictions of violent and explicit material in the name of the protection of young people) is ok in my view, but most of the other prohibitions are not emancipatory, and, by the way, won't work. To blame media for social ills (for example the massacre at Littleton High School) and to demand restrictions is to take the easy route. Of course, people's behavior and social interactions with others are not only regulated through laws. Many social norms and everyday practices facilitate the social life of mankind. Censorship is not the only way to instill and regulate norms by official actions, but it is the most simple and discernible effort to accomplish this. But since imposed restrictions often have the opposite effect, it is possible that censorship serves more to convince the public that aberrance is being restrained and that cultural values are being preserved than it is to actually prevent access to material. Tolernce and informal human kinds of social control on the face-to-face level of everyday life are more sensible constraints on the damaging use of bizarre items as long as interpersonal processes are effective.

"The threat of censorship is real. Laws can also be counterproductive. For some, they may only serve as labels to heighten curiosity", says Otto Larsen (p. 95). If bans were removed, novelty would wear off and satiation would eventually set in. However, a postmodern scenario of an over-stimulated population with complete access to uncensored sex, violent media content, offensive and actionable symbols and racist speech is not desirable. Mysteries are exciting. Showing everything to everybody could not only be quite dangerous for the continued existence of society (as the censors fear), but it would be rather boring for all the trash seeking "truffle-pigs". But there is no fear of that.

In my opinion, for the most part censorship is obsolete in a global society, and a helpless attempt of governments and pressure groups to deal with overtaxing situations. Finally, even ethical reasoned censorship is a political matter of power. However, German censorship can not be compared easily with arabian "arriqaba", this discussion may have showed. We censor contents, not people. It's more or less a kind of a sportsman's game, not an existential threat to live.

Possibly in some respects censorship may be not only bad; it may help us to keep the discussion about human values, the changing "Zeitgeist", necessary boundaries and the meaning of culture at all alive. And by the way: The history shows, that censoring or banning of art, expression and the media has contrary effects: it arouses our curiosity and heightens the degree of fame. It's a contradictory affair: The more censors ban, the more it becomes interesting.
Thanks for your kindly attention. Shukran.

- Green, Jonathon: The Encyclopedia of Censorship, Facts On File, New York 1990.
- Heins, Marjorie: Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy. A Guide to America's Censorship Wars, The New Press, New York 1993.
- Larsen, Otto N.: Voicing Social Concern: The Mass Media - Violence - Pornography - Censorship - Organization - Social Science - The Ultramultiversity, University Press of America, Lanham 1994.
- Post, Robert C. (Ed.): Censorship and Silencing. Practices of Cultural Regulation, The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Los Angeles 1998.
- Robertson QC, Geoffrey: Freedom, the Individual and the Law, Penguin Books, London 1993, 7th Edition.
- Seim, Roland: Zwischen Medienfreiheit und Zensureingriffen. Eine medien- und rechtssoziologische Untersuchung zensorischer Eingriffe in bundesdeutsche Populärkultur, Diss. phil. (thesis), Univ. of Münster, Telos Verlag, Münster/Germany 1997.
- Shattuck, Roger: Forbidden Knowledge. From Prometheus to Pornography, St. Martin's Press, New York 1996.

Author's Note:
Born in 1965 in Münster, Germany, Roland Seim studied art history, sociology and philosophy in Münster and Berlin, and received 1993 an M.A. degree in art history with a thesis on Alfred Kubin's depiction of "eros and thanatos". In 1997 he received his Dr. phil (Ph.D.) in sociology at the University of Münster/Germany with a doctoral dissertation on censorship in German popular culture. He is a publisher (, author and was a part-time lecturer at the Univ. Münster.

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Illustrations to my text




The Index Romanus of the Catholic church is obsolete since 1966. The German index does still exist and contains more than 15,000 media objects, that are forbidden for minors

3 und 4


Books on drugs growing are forbidden to minors








Banned pornography



Maxim Billers novel "Esra" is banned by the highest German court since 2007, even in this eraded version.


This neo-Nazi record is banned for xenophobic tendencies
7 In Germany it's forbidden to show the swastika in popular cultural circumstances, so even this poster appears in different versions
8 If used in clearly ant-fascistic terms, exed out swastikas are allowed
9 Banned in Germany for containing criminal instructions
10 "Evil Dead" is banned since 1984 for glorification of violence
11 Banned since 1999
12 In the Eighties a lot of heavy metal music records and covers were put on the index for violence
12a "Die Ärzte" - several records of the Berlin punk band are standing on the index since 1987
13 Banned for "bestiality"
14 Allowed CD-cover
15 Aggro Berlin - several titles of aggressive Berlin rap music are recently put on the index
16 In the Fifties, this cover was banned for obscenity



Early advising books (here 1969) were ashamed to show naked bodies.



So, in a kind of self-censorship, they put the protagonists in overalls, that show the erogene zones
Some further cases of censorship  
Not banned but discussed in German MTV
Banned satire stick because of libel
Chancellor Kohl's office required the company to stop selling this liquer label
Prime Minister Björn Engholm bans this satire magazine cover (left) by court because of violating his personal rights. The right version, published later by the mag Titanic was allowed being obviously a piece of satire.
Censorship is a world-wide phenomenon