It’s difficult for most Europeans to grasp the American concept of freedom of speech or expression. This freedom not only concerns verbal speech but the act of seeing, receiving, and imparting information and ideas.  It’s not an absolute right and is subject to some limitations.  For example, child pornography and speech that incites people to lawless is banned. In Europe, speech is more tightly controlled. 

Germany bans Nazi literature, symbols and even Nazi era films.  Any person found displaying, selling, or purchasing Nazi paraphernalia is subject to criminal prosecution. Even denying the Holocaust is a crime. Moreover, the Communist and Nazi political parties are outlawed.   

Last year, a production of the Broadway musical The Producers  made its Berlin debut. The story concerns two Jewish theatrical producers who scheme to get rich by overselling interests in a Broadway flop, Springtime for Hitler. Complications arise when the show unexpectedly turns out to be successful. Needless to say, the show is a comedy that depicts Hitler, Eva Braun, SS Soldiers and the swastika.

German law prevents the display of swastikas, so posters advertising The Producers used a pretzel symbol instead. Even with this change, the Berlin police received a number of complaints about the posters, which “provoked associations with the Nazis.” (Swastikas were permitted onstage as part of an artistic statement.)

Restrictions such as these are unthinkable in the USA.  So when Germans tell me the USA has lost its freedom, I point to their lack of freedom of speech and right to political association. 

On the other hand, Germans do have a point when they say American politics has become closely aligned with religion. They ask what as happened to the separation of church and state, and is America really a secular nation? Moreover, they correctly assert that over the past 30 years there has been a rise in religious fundamentalism across the USA.  Look at the various attempts in the USA to ban the teaching of evolution, to eliminate the right of women to have an abortion, and to obstruct the civil rights of gay people. 

Anyway, the other day, I happened to catch a radio broadcast concerning censorship around the world. (BTW: radio programming in Germany isn’t just pop songs. It includes radio serials, news, cultural programming, and a lot more.) Here are a few items that caught my interest:

  • A new version of the novel, From Here to Eternity, will be published later this month. An uncensored text of the James Jones’s 1951 novel has revealed that the author originally intended to include frank references to homosexuality considered too scandalous to be published in the USA at the time. In the original text, there were two scenes that never made it to the published edition, let alone the film. In one scene, private Angelo Maggio – the soldier played by Frank Sinatra in the film version – confesses to having sex with a wealthy man for some extra money. In the second scene, a military investigation into gay activity is mooted.
  • The American Library Association has just released its list of the 10 books Americans tried hardest to ban in 2010. On top of the list was Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three, a picture-book telling the true story of a chick adopted by two male Emperor penguins at the New York Central Park zoo. Many complained that the book promoted homosexuality.  

  • Finally, although this isn’t censorship in the USA (although it could be), a state in India has banned Pulitzer-prize-winning Joseph Lelyveld’s new book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. Why? Because it frankly discusses Gandhi’s relationship with Hermann Kallenbach, a German citizen. This has outraged certain segments of the Indian population, who can’t imagine the father of Indian independence having a gay relationship. Would a book about Lincoln’s homosexuality cause a similar controversy? Or do people even know Lincoln was gay?