Switzerland and the Banning of Books
By A. D. Freudenheim

25 March 2001

A small blurb in Newsweek and a short letter to The Guardian newspaper in London, both of which seem to have gone without broad public notice. These seem to be the only two English-language reports available about a recent occurrence that happened in connection with the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

The Newsweek piece ran on page eight in their 12 February 2001 edition; it is brief, no author is attributed, and it included the headline "Please Declare All Books." It said the following:

"Banning books is an odd way of showing neutrality. Last week British booksellers on the way to a conference opposing the World Economic Forum in Switzerland were stopped at the Swiss border when copies of No Logo by Naomi Klein and Captive State by George Monbiot were found on them. The anti-corporate books were deemed too subversive to be allowed in while world economic leaders were in the country. A public outcry set the books and sellers free."

Do the Swiss really restrict the books that can be imported to their country? According to the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation, the action described by Newsweek would seem to violate both the letter and the spirit of several protected rights. For example, in Title 2, Chapter 1, on "Fundamental Rights," Article 16 explicitly covers "Freedom of Information and Opinion" with the following parts:

1. The freedom of opinion and information is guaranteed.
2. All persons have the right to form, express, and disseminate their opinions freely.
3. All persons have the right to receive information freely, to gather it from generally accessible
sources, and to disseminate it.

Perhaps these rights do not apply to the non-Swiss, putting the British booksellers at risk - despite the apparent right on the part of Swiss citizens to engage with the very ideas the Brits were transporting. With respect to the "Residence and Domicile of Foreigners", the Swiss Constitution also holds, in Title 3, Chapter 2, Section 9, the following parts:

1. Legislation on immigration, emigration, residence and domicile of foreigners, and on
granting asylum are federal matters.
2. Foreigners who endanger Switzerland's security may be removed from Switzerland by

Thus, their Constitution establishes a Federal right to control border crossings, but is it possible that in carrying these books, the Brits were seen as endangering Swiss security, an act that warranted being forcibly stopped at the border? This seems to reveal the kind of anti-intellectual fear that only nations in jeopardy practice; countries whose devotion to one ideology is desired to be so total - and yet is ultimately so fragile - that they cannot withstand the possibility of dissent. For instance, the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc subordinates used to prohibit people from entering if they carried with them material that was seen as challenging to their "revolutionary" ideas. Similarly, the Palestinian Authority (which at present has only the appearance of an infrastructure and no state to go with it) recently shut down the Qatari-run Al Jazeera television network's West Bank and Gaza offices because the network seemed to have offended Yasir Arafat. Neither are exactly the models one expects the Swiss to follow.

Perhaps more disturbing - and more laughable - is the entire idea of protecting the intellectual integrity of the Swiss and their visitors in the first place. Stopping subversive books at the border? Do Swiss border guards maintain an active list of "problem" books? How long must the search of these booksellers have taken, merely in order to isolate the two books that were objectionable? Were the booksellers forced to turn over lists showing what they brought with them, title by title, author by author? How many other visitors to Switzerland are stopped for carrying potentially-inflammatory reading materials? In the age of the internet - of a global, nearly uncontrollable electronic communications network - do the Swiss believe that they can maintain the walls of their nation and protect those inside against the ideas advocated by the likes of Monbiot and Klein?

It's true that, in the end, the border guards relented and allowed the British booksellers to enter, Klein and Monbiot titles in hand. But apparently, Swiss border guards are in the position of being the protectors not just of Swiss neutrality and the state's physical integrity, but its intellectual guarantors as well. An unenviable role under the best of circumstances.

Note: The Embassy of Switzerland to the United States was contacted
for information on this issue. The legal affairs officer provided the
URL for the Swiss Constitution, but no response was received to further
inquiries specific to the events described above. An official, English
translation of the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation is
available at: http://www.swissemb.org/legal/New_Constitution_E_Size
. The letter to The Guardian was published 29 January 2001,
and is available at: http://www.gu.com/letters/story/0,3604,430124,00.html.
Copyright 2001, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.