Little Fascists Grow Up (Another Blow to Freedom of Speech in the World’s Fastest Crumbling Democracy)

Italy’s Fascist-era “anti-defamation” laws are serving as a powerful and effective tool of intimidation and coercion, stifling dissent, muzzling reporters, and obliterating free speech.

Sometimes, as Marina Morpurgo discovered recently, even a beauty school gets into the act.

One year ago, the SiRi Scuola di Formazione Professionale in Foggia, Italy, began promoting this deplorably sexist recruitment campaign:

farò l'estetista

In it, a young girl of perhaps six poses voluptuously for the camera as she applies lipstick to her pouty lips. “I’m going to be an esthetician,” the legend reads. “I’ve always known what I wanted.”

In a post on Facebook, Morpurgo, a former journalist who currently works as a freelance writer and editor, commented:

I know what I want, too: for whoever thought up an advertisement like this to be tarred and feathered.[1] These posters and slogans are nothing short of appalling. Congratulations on your depiction of women. Did someone put you into hibernation during the 1950s and just wake you up now?

Recently, Morpurgo learned that the SiRi was suing her for that post. According to their complaint, Morpurgo used “defamatory language” to libel the school. As of this writing, she has 20 days to submit a brief in her defense. (In italiano, vedete “Piccole intimidazioni quotidiane” e “Giornalista indagata per diffamazione per un post su Facebook.”)

Morpurgo’s main argument will surely be that her comment is protected speech under Article 21 of the Italian Constitution, which guarantees to all citizens “the right to freely express their thoughts and opinions in speech, in writing, and by any other means.”

You’d think that would be the end of it, but it won’t be. The right to freedom of expression in Italy is regularly subjugated to the competing strategy of businesses, politicians, and public figures who declare themselves slandered or libeled and sue people for it.

Because of the way the laws are used in Italy, expression of political or other opinions is not, in point of fact, protected. 

Anti-Defamation Laws as Journalistic Muzzle

As Gerardo Adinolfi argues in La donna che morse il cane (published in English as Woman Bites Dog. The Mafia’s War on Italian Women Journalists), threats of legal action for “defamation” (i.e., libel) together with actual lawsuits, have also had a chilling effect on journalistic investigations of organized crime and government corruption. Investigative journalists have lost their jobs and, virtually without exception, even large national newspapers and other publications have turned belly-up rather than face years of ruinous litigation.

Increasingly, in other words, freedom of the press also goes unprotected in Italy. According to the “World Press Freedom Index,” in fact, published annually by Reporters Without Borders, Italy’s ranking has dropped from an average of 41.8 for the 2003-2007 period to an average of 53.5 for the 2008-2013 period (a higher rating indicates greater concern about infringements of freedom of the press).

Despite regular calls for the repeal of defamation laws in Italy, meanwhile, no meaningful action has been taken even as the government expands its use of gag laws to silence dissent and criticism. What is more, the Italian right is increasingly determined to find ways to censor content on the internet, a forum that has proven less easy to control.

Even If You Win, You Lose

Many, perhaps most, Italian legal proceedings fade away rather than come to a clear conclusion—not least because they last so long that the statute of limitations kicks in and the case must be dismissed. As a result, there’s frequently no definitive moment in which a court issues a judgement in favor of a winner and orders the loser to pay the other party’s legal costs. Instead, after what can amount to years of investigation (with very murky rules regarding the discovery and sharing of information), what not infrequently happens is not very much.

The plaintiff in a libel suit, however, almost always gets good value for his money: No matter the outcome, he has demoralized, intimidated, and sometimes bankrupted the defendant. Defendants, in the meantime, may see their bank accounts blocked, their property seized, their websites shut down, and their reputations ruined. What the defendant gets is poorer and infinitely more cautious.

Roberto Orsi, who holds a law degree from the University of Turin and a PhD from the London School of Economics and who is a fellow at the LSE as well as a contributor to LSE IDEAS, an interdisciplinary comparative research group that investigates press coverage of the European economic crisis, makes clear what is at stake when he describes Italy’s “plummeting cultural production” and its “fatal mix of awful financial management, inadequate infrastructure, ubiquitous corruption and an inefficient bureaucracy, which includes the slowest and most unreliable justice system in Europe.” (See, e.g., his “The Quiet Collapse of the Italian Economy” and “The Demise of Italy and the Rise of Chaos.”)[2]

That inefficiency, that corruption, that withering of cultural production, and that failed legal system are, in no small part, enabled by libel laws that prevent journalists from meaningful reporting, discourage ordinary citizens from expressing dissent, and keep artists and writers from producing cultural works that are genuinely relevant to the culture. (It’s no surprise that the biggest literary event in years in Italy is the recent elevation by media acclamation of a second-rate romance writer, Fabio Volo, to the ranks of cultural heavyweight, complete with bashing of “pseudo-intellectuals” by no less than the former Minister of Culture and Tourism and current MP, Michela Vittoria Brambilla.[3])

If You See Something, Shut the Hell Up About It

So, if you can’t say — on Facebook, for crying out loud — that you find it offensive when a beauty school uses a JonBenét Ramsey-style image of a child to flog its courses for masseuses, stylists, manicurists, and hair dressers, what can you say in Italy? (Good thing Ellen DeGeneris isn’t Italian, by the way; she’d never have gotten away with her commentary on Bic’s “Pens for Her” campaign.)

The answer, as far as the Italian justice system is concerned, isn’t encouraging. But Morpurgo isn’t backing down. “If I had slandered or vilified someone,” she says in today’s L’Espresso, “if I’d said someone was corrupt or a thief or a cheat when that wasn’t true, I would apologize. But I stand by what I said about the ugliness of that image, and I’d repeat it a thousand times over. The underlying episode is trivial, but for me it’s a question of principle: the freedom to criticize, to express an opinion. And principles deserve to be defended, even when it isn’t convenient.”

We’ll keep an eye on Morpurgo’s case. In the meantime, for the silly, litigious folks at SiRi, here’s a fond hope that you’ll soon be visited by a plague of verruche grandi quanto Giove. No libel intended, just the desire for a little justice.


[1] Morpurgo’s reference, she told L’Espresso‘s Pietro Falco, was to a DuckTales cartoon in which Scrooge McDuck tars and feathers his rival, Flintheart Glomgold, who has cheated him. (Actually, Scrooge uses molasses rather than tar.)

[2] In one of those great, only-in-Italy attempts to mount a heated defense of an inane point, an unsigned editorial in the 21 November 2013 edition of the online news aggregator, Il Post, calls Orsi’s articles a hoax. Why? Because the opinions he expressed weren’t really those of the London School of Economics, as if an academic institution — rather than its staff and faculty — could actually hold opinions about anything. In other words, it wasn’t really the London School of Economics saying that “nothing would be left of Italy” and that “collapse was inevitable.” It was an eminent, respected scholar with a PhD from the LSE who currently teaches and does research for the LSE as well as contributes to its think-tanks and its publications who was saying those things. Hence the hoax. There’s an expression in Italian — arrampicarsi sugli specchi — which literally means “climbing on mirrors” but which is used to indicate someone who insists on inventing specious, fatuous claims in order to defend a manifestly losing argument. Il Post‘s editorial is an excellent example.

[3] Volo, whose deathless one-liners and “deep thoughts” have been faithfully collected by more than a few bloggers (“When you see a swallow in flight, that doesn’t mean it’s Spring,” “Women aren’t like men,” “If you don’t get lost, you’ll never find a new path,” “The point isn’t where you get things from; the point is where they take you”; “I waited for years for my life to change; now I understand that my life was waiting for me to change”), is being hailed by some as Italy’s greatest contemporary writer. In other words, E. J. James has just been named poet laureate.

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Posted on 22 November 2013, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), We've Gone Mad! Mad I Tell You!, Write ... che ti passa. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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