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Imperial Press Law (May 7, 1874)

The Imperial Press Law of 1874 represented the culmination of liberals’ efforts to shed the fetters of censorship that had been invoked after the revolutions of 1848/49. This law was one of the most important pieces of liberalizing legislation passed in the Bismarckian era. It was still in effect during the Weimar Republic and, after the interruption of Nazism, during the early years of the German Federal Republic. The law proclaimed freedom of the press, although that freedom was not absolute. Censorship was prohibited, but an editor remained criminally responsible before the courts for what appeared in his newspaper or journal. Editors often served jail terms for lèse majesté. Because freedom of the press was guaranteed by a law – and not by the constitution – it could be restricted or repealed by parliament. Thus, for example, a majority of Reichstag deputies were willing to ban all Social Democratic newspapers and other “subversive” printed matter during the period of the Anti-Socialist Law (1878-1890).

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Imperial Press Law (May 7, 1874)*

I. Introductory Provisions

§ 1. Freedom of the press is subject only to those restrictions that are stipulated or permitted by the present law.

§ 2. The present law applies to all products of the printing press as well as to all other duplications generated by mechanical or chemical means and intended for dissemination, including writings and graphic representations with or without lettering, and music with text or annotations.

What is decreed in the following with respect to “printed matter” applies to all aforementioned products.

§ 3. “Dissemination” as defined for the purpose of this law also includes posting, exhibiting, or making these products available in places where they are liable to public notice.

§ 4. The authorization to operate any type of press-related business on an independent basis or to publish and distribute printed matter can be revoked neither by administrative nor judicial means.

Apart from this, the provisions of the Trade Regulations Act are authoritative for the operation of press-related businesses.

§ 5. Those persons to whom a certificate of legitimation can be denied in accordance with § 57 of the Trade Regulations Act may be prohibited from the non-commercial public dissemination of printed matter by the local police authorities.

Infringements of such prohibitions are penalized in accordance with § 148 of the Trade Regulations Act.

* In the Federal Republic of Germany, the law expired on July 1, 1966, after the federal states [Länder] passed their own press laws. (All footnotes adapted from Ernst Rudolf Huber, ed., Dokumente zur Deutschen Verfassungsgeschichte [Documents on German Constitutional History], 3rd rev. ed., vol. 2, 1851-1900. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1986, pp. 455-60.)

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