Is freedom of expression at stake in Italy?

Students protest in Palermo against the suspension of Rosa Maria Dell’Aria. Photograph: Igor Petyx/EPA

In May 2019, the Italian government approved an anti-immigration “decreto sicurezza” (or  security decree). Among other nationalist policies, the new law foresees a fine against anyone who is found transporting a migrant into the country. In response, the students of Sicilian high school teacher Rosa Maria dell’Aria produced a short video that compared the decree, which was pushed forward by the Italian executive (composed Lega and Movimento Cinque Stelle populist parties), to the fascist racial laws introduced by Benito Mussolini in 1938. Dell’Aria was disciplined at her school for the video and suspended from work for 15 days.

In the last weeks, hundreds of Italian teachers expressed their open dissent with this decision on social media, and writing in solidarity with the recently suspended 63-year-old teacher.

The point here is not to analyze whether the comparison between Interior Minister and rightist populist League party leader Matteo Salvini and Benito Mussolini is plausible. Instead, the article wants to understand how this action risks setting a dramatically dangerous precedent for a democracy. The freedom of expression of teachers and students is a fundamental right that allows a key institution such as  a school to develop critical and independent thinking, which is essential to keep democracies alive. The freedom to express opinions and ideas, albeit in a proper and respectful way, is a fundamental trait of every healthy democratic system. This freedom is especially necessary regarding political dissent.

The case in Palermo risks producing an atmosphere of fear and silence in Italian schools, and more generally within all public institutions in Italy. Teachers and other civil servants are understandably afraid they will undergo a witch-hunt if they express political views that conflict with the ones of the people in power. We should recall philosopher Karl Popper’s famous argument in favor of democracy: The democratic system is the best form of government, as it is the only political system allowing citizens to get rid of a government by voting it out of office, for instance in a parliamentary election, without bloodsheds and violence.

A dangerous political agenda

Since the legislative election on March 2018 and the establishment of the Lega-M5S executive with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in June 2018, Salvini and his party, the Lega, which quickly took over the political agenda from the hands of Luigi Di Maio and the other M5S members of the executive through a series of well-conceived propagandistic statements. Let’s just mention a few:

Salvini in the last days used Carola Rackete, Sea-Watch captain, as object of its anti-immigrants propaganda. Salvini also attended the controversial “Congresso delle Famiglie” in Verona, an anti-LGBT, sexist and anti-abortion platform; Salvini again and the Lega promoted questionable anachronistic political initiatives, such as the reintroduction of a short-term military draft (suspended in Italy since the early 2000’s) and uniforms for first grade pupils. Pope Francis and his entourage were the latest focus of Salvini’s propaganda, accused of providing shelters to the homeless at the expense of the Italian taxpayers. Throughout these activities, the Party maintains an omnipresent violent rhetoric against immigrants looking to reach Italy to avoid disastrous economic conditions and conflicts.

In light of these considerations, it is possible to say that Salvini and the Lega are at the forefront of the populist and radical right agenda, not only at the European level, but worldwide, alongside U.S. President Donald Trump. Salvini has proven to be adept at understanding and mastering the current context of “permanent political campaign” in Europe, while paving the way for other populist radical right parties.

Some hope: political dissent in Italy is still thriving

In the days following the suspension of Rosa Maria dall’Aria, hundreds of Italian teachers expressed solidarity with their colleague on social media in words and even in cartoons.

At the same time, harsh criticism has been expressed not only by opposition parties, but by politicians of the M5S, towards the decision of the Ministry of Education concerning the Italian teacher. The argument is still alive, which means for now, there is still some hope for the endurance of Italian democracy*.

Dr Valerio Alfonso Bruno is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a post-doctoral researcher in Political Science at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). His profile can be found here.

*A different version of this article first appeared on Public Seminar of The New School for Social Research. It can be found here.