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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Controversy on the Lost Jewish Accounts in Swiss Banks and Its Aftermath

Filed under: Europe and Israel
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

  • No. 103

    • The affair of the dormant, or lost, Jewish accounts in Swiss banks is still seen today by a large part of the Swiss population not as an attempt to achieve historic justice, but as an outright attack not only on Swiss banking but on Swiss identity and on Switzerland as a whole. The notion of “Jewish blackmail” is still rampant.
    • The controversy triggered an outburst of anti-Semitism not seen since the 1930s. Although things have since cooled down, anti-Semitism has risen to new levels. This has also happened elsewhere in Europe over the past decade. Switzerland seems to differ from other countries in that the emergence of the so-called new anti-Semitism seems to be a reaction to the debate on restitution and compensation.
    • Switzerland’s reassessment of its past is not the result of domestic soul-searching but of perceived and real external pressure. Hence it does not run deep and has not left much impact.
    • While most of the $1.25 billion have been paid according to the 1998 settlement between the Swiss banks and the Jewish claimants, Switzerland’s attitude toward Jews and Israel has changed for the worse since the early 1990s.


It is now more than a decade since the affair of the dormant Swiss bank accounts was officially ended in 1998 with a negotiated settlement between selected Jewish organizations and the major Swiss banks and financial intermediaries. The 2001 publication of the official reassessment of the Swiss wartime record by the Independent Commission of Experts (ICE), known as the Bergier Commission, seemed to finally put the matter to rest.[1]

The issue of the dormant or “lost” Jewish accounts had triggered a controversy, which lasted for the better part of the 1990s and intensified as the decade progressed. The dispute encompassed more than the specific issue of restitution and turned into a debate on the overall Swiss conduct during the war and beyond, including issues such as the largely anti-Jewish Swiss refugee policy, the economic and financial collaboration with Nazi Germany during the war, and the question of whether Switzerland’s less than neutral policies had actually helped prolong the war.[2]

The Controversy as Seen by the Swiss

What started as a limited debate evolved in a very short time into what Swiss diplomats, officials, and media would later call the country’s worst foreign policy crisis since World War II.[3] Most of the involved Swiss officials and media did not see this crisis as emerging from actual Swiss misbehavior during the war. It seemed instead to indicate the country’s weakened standing in the emerging post-Cold War world order.[4] In this new world, Swiss elites believed, the many services neutral Switzerland and its financial industry had provided were no longer needed and the country had therefore become vulnerable to attack by competing financial markets and the governments backing them.

The controversy of the 1990s was perceived as such an attack, in which gewisse Ostküstenkreise(certain East Coast circles), a widely used code for American Jews,[5] sought to dismantle the Swiss financial industries or gain an advantage over them. Whereas Jews all over the world see the Swiss bank-accounts affair as a matter of setting the record straight and of belated historic justice, many Swiss still view it as part of an ongoing battle over Switzerland’s political and economic position in an ever-shrinking but extremely competitive world.

Similar readings of contemporary affairs continue to this day. For example, the recent criticism by the United States and the European Union of Swiss banking secrecy and of a fiscal policy that regards tax evasion as a minor offense was also interpreted as an attack by competing financial centers aimed at eliminating competition.

A Threatened Self-Image

The crisis began around 1992 when descendants and other relatives of Holocaust victims publicly reclaimed accounts that their murdered kin had held in Swiss banks, and that had never been restored because documentation had been lost. The issue was not really new, having been raised initially in 1945 immediately after the war and then again in the 1950s. By 1962, after payment of relatively small sums to selected Jewish organizations and the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG), Switzerland, the official Jewish organizations, and the state of Israel had considered the matter settled.

Nevertheless, the issue returned with full force when restitution became a major point of contention all over Europe in the 1990s. This followed the downfall of communism, the democratization of Eastern and Central Europe, German unification, and the opening and renewed accessibility of archival records. From Paris to Berlin, Prague, and Warsaw, Jewish dispossession in the 1930s and 1940s became a burning concern.

Thus it should have come as no surprise when Jewish organizations turned their attention to Switzerland and took up the unfinished business of 1962.

Following a World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) meeting in Jerusalem on 15 June 1995 with representatives of the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress (WJC) present, the Jewish organizations became active on the issue of the lost accounts in Swiss banks. Among the organizations involved were the European Jewish Congress (EJC) and the SIG, which under its chairman Rolf Bloch was to serve as an intermediary between the Jewish organizations and the Swiss government and banks.[6] Following a failed meeting in Berne on 12 September 1995 between the Jewish organizations and the representatives of the banks,[7] the WJC under its president Edgar Bronfman and its secretary-general Rabbi Israel Singer took the lead in what was to become an active public campaign, with Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg also playing a role on the side.

Considering the momentum the issue gained at the time, the reaction of the Swiss banks is all the more astonishing. They first chose to ignore the issue and then, according to many accounts, mistreated the claimants and the representatives of Jewish organizations. With the Swiss banks noncompliant and the Swiss government at first not only refusing to cooperate with Jewish claimants but actively protecting the banks, what had begun as a relatively minor legal matter rapidly evolved into a full-blown crisis.[8]

Indeed, when then U.S. administration under President Clinton got involved,[9] Swiss foreign policy and economic elites began to feel threatened. As the affair gained momentum, more and more parts of Swiss society felt attacked and besieged as a whole by outside forces they did not understand. Mainly visible to the public were American Jewish organizations mainly the WJC and elected U.S. officials and politicians who for domestic reasons often used blunt and undiplomatic rhetoric.

Thus, Swiss from Left to Right closed ranks and turned on the external critics, who had failed to find allies in Switzerland. Many average Swiss had the impression that not only were the legal heirs of those Swiss institutions and businesses that had actively collaborated with Nazi Germany under attack, but the country as a whole. This led many people to side with the banks and the government, of which they may have been very critical previously. The whole force of the state mobilized against the perceived external attacks.

What was presumably under threat was the traditional self-image the Swiss had cherished since 1945. The war generation in particular felt vilified. This generation believed it had proved itself during the war, having been mostly strongly anti-Nazi and having been drafted into the army by the hundreds of thousands to man the borders against Germany for years at heavy personal and social cost. They remembered themselves as having been ready to die defending the longstanding Swiss democracy, which in time-honored fashion helped the persecuted of Europe. This heroic self-image led the Swiss to see their country as having taken part in the wider resistance against Nazi Germany. The average Swiss indeed seems to have sympathized with the Allies, as indicated by the frenzied reception of Winston Churchill in Zurich in 1946.[10]

Yet there were much darker sides to the Swiss World War II record, which were known at the time but allowed to recede since 1945. These aspects were not completely forgotten, as shown by the public debates on refugee policy in the 1950s and 1960s, but in the general memory of the war were relegated to secondary importance.

Still, the traditional depiction of the Swiss record during the war, with the country being spared through a mixture of clever economic policies and heroic armed neutrality, had begun to fray by the 1990s. This account had been questioned since the 1970s by a younger generation of new, largely left-wing historians. Now, with the Cold War ending and the necessity of a large, heavily armed, highly trained militia army of more than half a million men being questioned, the old narrative increasingly came under scrutiny. Historians looked more and more into Swiss wartime economic collaboration with Germany,[11] questioned the Swiss defensive military posture,[12] and described the fascist sympathies of many of the traditional Swiss elites.[13] Their work had been made difficult by the limited accessibility of Swiss archives, where many files had been destroyed.

And yet, despite the inroads of the “new historians,” the heroic version of the Swiss wartime record prevailed. As mentioned, it had put Switzerland firmly in the camp of those countries that had resisted Nazi Germany. This formed the basis for neutral Switzerland’s strong identification with the West since the 1950s. Up until the mid-1990s, Switzerland could be counted among the most pro-American and pro-Israeli countries of Europe. The sympathy for Israel also arose from the identification of a small isolated state with another. Despite the New Left’s increasing questioning of these attitudes since the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1982 First Lebanon War,[14] this state of affairs did not change significantly until the bank-accounts crisis.

Rising Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism has been on the rise throughout Europe over the past decade. While the so-called “new anti-Semitism” is generally attributed to the growing Islamism, the effects of identity politics in countries with a rising Muslim minority, and the radical anti-Israelism of large parts of the European Left, Switzerland seems to be an exception to the rule. To be sure, the same factors are at work there as in the rest of Europe. In Switzerland, however, the reemergence of anti-Semitism might also be seen as having been triggered by the controversy over Swiss conduct during the war.  

Until the mid-1990s, anti-Semitic attitudes could not be expressed in public and certainly not in any media. But the controversy on the Jewish bank accounts and, more broadly, the Swiss record during the war changed all that.

The fact that the debate was seen as being imposed on the Swiss from outside indeed prompted a massive counterreaction. That the rediscovery of the darker sides of the Swiss wartime conduct and the reassessment of the old, heroic Swiss narrative did not evolve from a national soul-searching but was forced on the country by a seemingly hostile world, was to have drastic consequences for how the Swiss would see themselves and their role in the world, and how they would see and refer to the United States, Israel, and the Jews.[15]

As noted, the Swiss were forcibly confronted with a past that did not correspond to the heroic image they had long upheld. The popular myth of wartime resistance collapsed under pressure and was revealed as a myth. Since this pressure was seen as being applied by Americans and American Jews allegedly only for political and economic reasons, the reactions became increasingly hostile to Americans and Jews in general. The external accusations did not seem directed at actual culprits or their respective heirs and legal successors, but instead at the Swiss nation as a whole.

When, on 23 December 1996, then-foreign minister Flavio Cotti spoke out against making any payments before the facts were investigated, the media and the population concurred.[16] The same happened when then-justice minister Arnold Koller said that outside arrogance, unfair methods, and continued pressure would not lead to the requested solution.[17] Then, on 31 December, Swiss president Pascal Delamuraz said in an interview to two newspapers that London and New York wanted to destabilize Switzerland and destroy its financial centers. That Jews, said Delamuraz, were not grateful for Switzerland’s attitude would cause anti-Semitism, and he referred to the financial restitution and compensation made to Jewish claimants and organizations as “ransom” and to the restitution debate as “blackmail,” asking whether Auschwitz was located in Switzerland.[18]

Delamuraz received instant approbation in the country. His interview seemed to grant legitimacy to opinions increasingly voiced by many. Indeed, it opened the floodgates of anti-Semitism, which since then has barely been contained again if at all. Finally people could openly take up arms against the perceived foreign attack on their country.

Delamuraz’s notion of “Jewish blackmail” has since become the dominant narrative of the affair. Far from contributing to a new understanding of history by making people aware of prejudice and paths wrongly taken, many now prefer to label the whole affair as blackmail and thus put it to rest without having to reassess their own record.

The Swiss Jewish Reaction

To the Jewish communities of Switzerland, which despite a rather difficult past[19] considered themselves to be well integrated, all of this came as an unpleasant surprise. They felt themselves squeezed between the legitimate Jewish claims and a Swiss political and popular reaction that threatened their standing and their very security. Even though communities, institutions, and private individuals had to deal with levels of verbal aggression and masses of hate mail[20] not seen since the 1930s, the SIG chose to keep its traditional low profile.

Policies of “low profile,” “not rocking the boat,” and “working behind the scene” have characterized the Swiss Jewish leadership for most of the twentieth century to the extent that historians have coined the term Minhag Suisse (the Swiss approach) for them.[21] In this way the SIG sought to steer a middle course between the Jewish organizations and the Swiss government. On the one hand, they identified with Jewish claims from abroad; on the other, by proving to be “good Swiss citizens” they hoped to counter the rising enmity.

Yet, while this strategy helped establish Bloch, the head of the SIG, as a major mediator between the Jewish organizations represented by the WJC and the Swiss government and banks and thus helped bring about a settlement, it did not effectively counter the anti-Jewish outbursts. Even when the whole controversy had cooled down after 1998, things did not go back to “normal.”

Anti-Semitism has since come and gone in waves,[22] with things never having returned to what they were before the controversy broke out. Anti-Israelism is now common at all levels of Swiss society, and so is anti-Semitism though it is expressed less openly than its newer counterpart. A March 2000 poll by the gfs Research Institute in Berne found that 16 percent of the Swiss population harbored intense anti-Semitic feelings.[23] Although this is the general European average, it is double the percentage that earlier polls had found in Switzerland. A 2006 study by the University of Geneva’s Department of Sociology found that 20 percent of the Swiss are “affected by anti-Semitism.[24] This study’s methodology was questioned, and the gfs Research Institute came out with lower numbers in 2007.

Yet, while in the 2007 study only 10 percent of respondents were openly anti-Semitic, 53 percent were highly critical of Israel. Fifty percent saw Israel as waging a “war of annihilation” (Vernichtungskrieg) against the Palestinians, and 13 percent of the Swiss said Israel had no right to exist.[25] Since then no further studies have been conducted.

As for anti-Americanism, a poll published in January 2003 by the research institute Isopublic for the weekly Weltwoche found that Switzerland was then one of the most anti-American countries in Europe with 57 percent of the population explicitly hostile to the United States.[26] This represents a drastic change after a long history of friendship, cultural affinity, and economic cooperation between the so-called “sister republics” since the nineteenth century.

A Controversy Put to Rest

Delamuraz’s interview at the end of 1996 prompted a strong response by the WJC, the WJRO, the Jewish Agency, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Media worldwide reported. Even the U.S. State Department protested. The State of New York threatened to take action against the Swiss banks.

With the international uproar  over the interview, the ensuing escalation in the winter of 1996-1997, and the continued threat to business activities of the major Swiss banks in the United States, the Swiss political establishment finally launched a serious effort in damage control. Things were to be cooled down at all costs, not because of concern about possible Swiss guilt but because of possible damage to the banking industry.

At that time, the Swiss economic and political elites were still intertwined.  Business, military, and political careers went hand in hand. For most of the twentieth century Swiss foreign policy had been trade policy, with the Foreign Ministry taking third place after the Departments of Economy and Finance. Hence, when the situation escalated, the government took action beyond any academic reassessment of history.[27]

On 5 March 1997, the new president and justice minister Arnold Koller for the first time admitted, in a speech before parliament, Swiss guilt during World War II. Nevertheless, he paid homage to the older heroic narrative by thanking the older generation of Swiss for manning the borders against Germany. He also thanked the Allies for rescuing Europe and thus also securing Switzerland’s freedom.

At the end of the speech Koller suggested establishing a Solidarity Foundation  to help victims of genocide, persecution, poverty, and natural disaster.  This would include assistance to poor Holocaust survivors in the newly opened countries of Eastern Europe. The foundation was to be established in 1998 to mark the 150th anniversary of the modern Swiss Federal State, and would be paid for by the sale of gold owned by the Swiss National Bank worth 7 billion Swiss francs. This money was to be invested, and the resulting income would be used to assist the diverse designated groups.

After much bickering in parliament and a popular referendum, it was determined that only one-third of the proceeds from the National Bank’s gold would go to the foundation. The rest would be evenly distributed to the Swiss cantons, and to the nation’s old age insurance. Needy Holocaust survivors especially in Byelorussia and Ukraine received only small amounts of money.

The Solidarity Foundation managed to improve Switzerland’s image for a short time. What really put the bank-accounts affair to rest, however, was a 1998 financial settlement between the Swiss banks and Jewish claimants. The two major Swiss banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, were to pay $1.25 billion to a foundation administered by Jewish organizations; all further claims and legal suits were to be dropped.

By 2009, $1.086 billion had been paid to 451,770 persons who could prove their claim or fulfilled the necessary conditions.[28] In 2009, an argument broke out on what to do with the remaining $150 million. Distribution was said to have been proceeding too slowly to reach many elderly survivors. All in all, some 17,800 persons had been able to prove their claims against the Swiss banks; by 2009 they had received a total of $570 million.[29]

For the banks the affair was thus closed. They could go back to business as usual – until the near-collapse of UBS and the tax-evasion affairs of 2008-2009. Whether justice was done in 1998 remains open to debate.

The Failure of Historical Reassessment

Among the measures taken for damage control was the establishment on 13 December 1996 of the abovementioned Bergier Commission. The aim was to counter pressure and show that Switzerland was serious about confronting its past. The commission’s establishment, therefore, did not emerge from a sincerely felt wish for soul-searching but, rather, from tactical deliberations.

The Bergier Commission was given an extremely broad mandate and a budget of twenty-two million francs. Scores of young historians were to enter the archives to research refugee policy, economic and financial collaboration, transfer of assets, Swiss complicity in aryanization, slave labor, and the like. For the first time in Swiss history all major archives were opened by law.

After two interim reports on Switzerland’s gold transactions and on refugee policy in 1998 and 1999, respectively, the Bergier Commission brought out its first set of complete studies in 2001 when the bank-accounts affair had been officially over for three years already. The commission arrived at a reassessment of history that more closely approximated a complex reality. On the one hand, Switzerland had preserved its independence and its democracy; on the other, it had collaborated and become deeply embroiled in the functioning of the Nazi economic, financial, and war machines.

The commission, however, avoided certain chapters of Swiss history, such as the collaboration of certain individuals, families, and firms. One also looks in vain for a conclusive analysis of the year 1940, when, after the fall of France, some government ministers, high-ranking army officers, and parts of the economic elites wanted to align with Nazi Germany. Other officials, large parts of the population, and most junior officers opposed this, bringing the country close to a pro-Allied military coup.

Nevertheless, with twenty-two volumes, five research papers, and a final report, coming to about eleven thousand pages altogether, the Bergier Commission’s inquiry was the largest such historical project ever undertaken. Yet the size and the nature of the writing it produced are exactly where the problem lies. Even for experts and professional historians the massive output is difficult to read, and for the average citizen it is a closed book. While an effort was made to summarize the most important results in the final report, it still makes difficult reading for the interested layman.

So far, efforts to popularize the Bergier Commission’s reassessment of history and publish it in a more readable form have not come to fruition. Apart from some new history textbooks based on the commission’s findings,[30] its insights have not been widely disseminated and so have failed to make an impact on society. The only exception is Switzerland’s official participation in the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research (ITF).

Another explanation offered for the Bergier Commission’s limited impact on Swiss society is that by 2001, when it started to publish its results, the U.S. and Jewish pressure on Switzerland was already a thing of the past. Business as usual prevailed, and almost nobody in the political parties, parliament, or the public wanted to rock the boat or even hear about replacing the old narrative with a new one. After all, the whole exercise was merely about fending off outside pressure.


From the very beginning, much of the Swiss population has not viewed the affair of the dormant Jewish bank accounts as an attempt to achieve historic justice but, instead, as an outright attack by “the Jews” and the United States not only on Swiss banking but on the country in general. In reaction, Swiss society closed ranks. Traditional anti-Semitism has resurfaced openly, and over the past decade has grown and gained in legitimacy despite efforts to combat it through the 1995 Law against Racism (Antirassismusgesetz).[31]All this can be seen partly as a legacy of the developments of the mid-1990s.

Being viewed, then, as imposed by external elements, the reassessment of the past has barely left traces. While the new and revised narrative established by the Bergier Commission has become the official history of Switzerland during World War II, it has had little impact outside of academia. With the settlement between the major Swiss banks and Jewish claimants, most of the Swiss considered the matter resolved and moved on. Switzerland’s wartime record has ceased to be a matter of public debate and interest.

*     *     *


[1] On the Bergier Commission or Unabhängige Expertenkommission (UEK), see (last viewed on 18 August 2010).

[2] See Helen B. Junz, “Confronting Holocaust History: The Bergier Commission’s Research on Switzerland’s Past,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 8, 1 May 2003, (last viewed on 18 August 2010).

[3] Thomas Maissen, Verweigerte Erinnerung. Nachrichtenlose Vermögen und Schweizer Weltkriegsdebatte 1989-2004 (Zürich: Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 2005), 9ff. [German]

[4] See Andreas Wenger and Jon A. Fanzun, “Schweiz in der Krise – Krisenfall Schweiz,” Bulletin 1997/98 zur Schweizerischen Sicherheitspolitik (ed. Kurt R. Spillmann), Forschungsstelle für Sicherheitspolitik ETH, Zürich, 1998. [German]

[5] This term usually refers to the Jewish communities in the large cities of the U.S. East Coast. It echoes anti-Semitic conspiracy fantasies widespread in Switzerland whereby American Jews control U.S. government policies and financial markets.

[6] Maissen, Verweigerte Erinnerung, 174ff. Although Israel initially took an active interest in the issue through the involvment of its Foreign Ministry, it later stayed out of the controversy, choosing to work behind the scenes for diplomatic reasons.

[7] Ibid., 176-187.

[8] So far the most detailed if somewhat partial historical account of the whole affair is that in ibid.

[9] See Stuart E. Eizenstat, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II (New York: Public Affairs, 2003).

[10] See Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz, online version at (last viewed on 18 August 2010). [German]

[11] See Hans-Ulrich Jost, Politik und Wirtschaft im Krieg. Die Schweiz 1938-1948 (Zürich: Chronos, 1998). [German]

[12] See Jakob Tanner, “‘Réduit national’ und Aussenwirtschaft: Wechselwirkungen zwischen militärischer Dissuasion und ökonomischer Kooperation mit den Achsenmächten,” in Philipp Sarasin and Regina Wecker, eds., Raubgold, Reduit, Flüchtlinge. Zur Geschichte der Schweiz im Zweiten Weltkrieg(Zürich: vdf, 1998). [German]

[13] Niklaus Meienberg, Die Welt als Wille & Wahn. Elemente zur Naturgeschichte eines Clans, 7th ed. (Zürich: Limmat Verlag, 2005). [German]

[14] Christina Späti, Die schweizerische Linke und Israel: Israelbegeisterung, Anti-Zionismus und Anti-Semitismus zwischen 1967 und 1991 (Berlin: Klartext, 2006). [German]

[15] Of course it might be argued that the controversy only brought to light anti-Semitic attitudes that had long been there but following the Shoah had not been legitimate. The point, however,  is that the controversies of the mid-1990s made it legitimate again to express such attitudes quite openly, so long as this did not violate the 1995 Law against Racism (Antirassismusgesetz).

[16] Maissen, Verweigerte Erinnerung, 272.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 272ff.

[19] See Simon Erlanger, “Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic Roles of Jews in Swiss Society,” Jewish Political Studies Review, vol. 22, nos. 1-2 (Spring 2010); Simon Erlanger, “Is There a Future for Jews in Switzerland?,” Changing Jewish Communities, 18, 15 March 2007

[20] Hans Stutz, “‘…dass man meinen konnte, die Fröntler seien auferstanden’. Ein Blick in antisemitische Zuschriften,” in Chronologie “Rassistische Vorfälle in der Schweiz” (Zurich: GRA, 1997), 123-159, (last viewed on 1 September 2010) [German]; Maissen, Verweigerte Erinnerung, 279ff.

[21] Jacques Picard, Die Schweiz und die Juden 1933-1945 (Zurich: Chronos, 1994), 280. [German]

[22] See Erlanger, “Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic Roles” and “Is There a Future…?”

[23] (last viewed on 18 August 2010). [German]

[24] Sandro Cattacin, Brigitta Gerber, Massimo Sardi, and Robert Wegener, “Monitoring Misanthropy and Rightwing Extremist Attitudes in Switzerland: An Explorative Study,” Department of Sociology, University of Geneva, 2006, 70.

[25]⟨=de&sub2 (last viewed on 18 August 2010). [German]

[26] Weltwoche, 5 February 2003, (last viewed on 18 August 2010). [German]

[27] Maissen, Verweigerte Erinnerung, 306ff.

[28] See Bankenvergleich – Eizenstat: Vergleichs-Gelder für bedürftige Holocaust-Überlebende. Schweizerische Depeschenagentur vom 08.02.2010, 11:49,

(last viewed on 18 August 2010). [German]

[29] Ibid.

[30] See Swissinfo, 30 September 2003, (last viewed on 18 Aug ust 2010) [German]; Swissinfo, 27 March 2006, (last viewed on 18 August 2010). [German]

[31] The Law against Racism is only applicable in cases of public utterances or other displays of anti-Semitism or racism. Anything said or displayed in private or in closed social circes (such as pubs,  meetings etc.) is not punishable. On free-speech grounds, courts have taken a rather liberal approach in applying the law.