The Little Miss Litigious Contest

*********13 January 2015**********

In response to a private message sent to the Milan-based IAP (Istituto dell’Autodisciplina Pubblicitaria – or Institute for Self-Regulation in Advertising – and, in shaky English, here) regarding the SIRI Professional Training Institute’s “I’m going to be an Esthetician” campaign,” the IAP responded on 13 January 2015 as follows:

We would like to inform you that this matter has already been brought before IAP’s Monitoring Board and investigated. On 30 November 2012, the Board asked the advertiser to reconsider the publicity message in question and to remove the elements we considered to be in violation of Art.11 of our “Code of Self-Regulation in Business Communications,” with specific reference to the section which states: “Representations of behavior or concepts aimed at the sexualization of children are prohibited.”

The advertiser does not fall within the requirements of IAP’s self-regulatory Code because its publicity was limited to local dissemination only and, therefore, was not required to comply with IAP’s Code. In any case, the advertiser failed to respond to our request and, as a result, IAP had no authority to take further action and the matter could not be pursued.


Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to say that the nonsense libel suit filed against journalist Marina Morpurgo by Maria Laura Sica, owner of the Foggia, Italy-based SIRI beauty school (or “professional training institute,” as SIRI would prefer it), had simply faded away, as it so richly deserves to?

Why, yes, it would.

Unfortunately, the Foggia prosecutor, Anna Landi, has decided to keep this frivolous, dangerous lawsuit on life support for at least the next six months, and has issued an order that moves the case along to its next phase: a hearing set for May 15, 2015.

You may recall, from reading “Little Fascists Grow Up (Another Blow to Freedom of Speech in the World’s Fastest Crumbling Democracy),” published on Una Vita Vagabonda in November 2013, that SIRI and Ms. Landi are suing Morpurgo, a long-time correspondent for L’Unità and editor of the weekly newsmagazine Diario, for “offending SIRI’s honor” by “denigrating its publicity campaign” in a pair of Facebook posts.

Now, it should first be said that, if ever a publicity campaign deserved to be denigrated, that one did: The school’s recruiting poster depicted a young girl, professionally made up like a higher-class Honey Boo Boo in a National American Miss pageant and pouting voluptuously while she applied lipstick (pink, naturally). “I’m going to be an esthetician,” the legend read. “I’ve always known what I wanted.”SIRI Jan 2015

For her part, Morpurgo commented on Facebook, “I know what I want, too: for whoever thought up an advertisement like this to be tarred and feathered. 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?”

Getting sued for what you write on Facebook isn’t limited to Italy and isn’t new—but it is still rare. Meanwhile, the people who bring such suits typically lose – unless the poster wrote something that was deliberately false or misleading.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a chilling effect on public discourse and, indeed, on one’s ability to say snarky things within a semi-private group of friends. (In Morpurgo’ s case, her original comments were visible to and intended only for her Facebook contacts. They were not public, and it isn’t clear how her comments expanded beyond that group to become known to Ms. Sica but, as we are all aware, Facebook is to privacy as the Outback’s “Blooming’ Onion” is to dieting.)

Suits like the one against Morpurgo deserve to be dismissed simply for their obvious attempt to intimidate, censor, or bankrupt defendants. In that sense, they are much like so-called SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation)—litigation brought not because the plaintiff has any expectation of winning, but because he knows the suit will make the defendant’s life a living hell.

In the context of Italy’s antiquated, Fascist-era defamation laws and glacially slow legal system, the situation is even more complex and the outcome is far from clear. If found guilty, Morpurgo could face a four-year prison sentence.

Even if she wins, she’ll be on the hook for her legal fees. There’s virtually no chance under Italian law to recover legal costs if the party that sued you loses.

Of course, anyone can understand that Maria Laura Sica might have been dismayed to hear that someone considered her publicity poster a sexist throwback. One fails to understand how she could have been surprised to hear that, but one understands that she could have been offended.

But of course no one ever objects to inoffensive speech, and inoffensive speech has no need of laws or institutions to protect it.

Given the nightmare that has just unfolded in Paris, this is a good time to remember that it is speech which offends that must most vigorously be defended. Defended from people who resort to violence and bloodshed to be sure, but defended as well from people like Ms. Sica who are much more common.

What they share is the conviction that their sense of personal umbrage  justifies an act of vengeance.


Posted on 9 January 2015, 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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