Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees, among others, the right to free speech. However, no right is without limit. When a right begins to infringe upon the interests of another person or group of people, it will be interpreted by the courts to bring about the fairest, most reasonable solution available.
Needless to say, anything designed to impede the United States’ Constitution and its guarantees of free speech may be subject to judicial review. Generally, courts will take a dim view of any form of censorship as it flies directly in the face of the First Amendment. Thus, the government must usually have a very compelling reason for trying to interfere with this right.
In the past, the courts have upheld many censorship laws in broadcast media due to the concept of scarcity of resources. When television and radio broadcasts were primarily delivered via radio waves, the number of available frequencies were limited. As a result, choices were rather limited and the courts agreed that the government could impose certain censorship laws because it was in the public interest to protect the audience from inappropriate or offensive materials from which they may not otherwise be able to escape.
However, as media has moved into the digital age where there are now thousands of choices, these laws have once again come under attack. And, the government is hard pressed to provide a compelling reason that censorship laws should remain in effect for matters such as “decency.” Nevertheless, censorship is still a fact of life in America and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Unique historical considerations can also spawn censorship. Perhaps the best example is the “Ha-sprache” (hate speech) law in Germany. It is illegal, under German law, to depict any kind of glorification of the Nazis or even to display the emblem of the swastika. The law is enforced to the point where even historical battle simulations may not use the actual emblems that were used during World War II (by the Waffen SS, for instance). Significantly, almost all of Germany’s close neighbors and allies have similar laws. The questions in Germany and elsewhere in the European Union (EU) form a particularly hard case because of the historical background and because the situation in the EU is fast-moving. That is why this series of snapshots of conditions in various countries and regions will first deal with other areas and levels of censorship and access problems, and then return to the situation in the EU.