by Daniele Scalea

Freedom of speech is a pivotal principle of liberal democracies. We find it recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Italian Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Yet, the public expression of one's thoughts does not always occur unchallenged - and we are certainly not referring to the criticism and responses of those who disagree, who in turn are exercising their sacrosanct right to express themselves. No: the reference is to attempts to prevent others from speaking in public, through the threat or use of force.

What happened last Oct. 25 at Italy's largest university, when police had to intervene to allow the regular course of a conference that some extremists wanted to prevent, is one of the latest warnings about the attention to be paid to the defense of free speech. It was certainly not the first time that a conference at an Italian university had a contour of clashes between law enforcement and "protesters" determined to prevent it from taking place. The pretense, peculiar to certain radical organizations, of deciding who may or may not have "right of political action" is an unfortunately long-standing malpractice in our country.

This age-old vice is all the more worrisome today, however, as it is welded with the increasingly frequent and similar phenomenon affecting US campuses. Whenever some "controversial" speaker (a word that, generally, conceals nothing but right-wing sympathies) shows up to speak at a conference organized at a university, extremist students start riots and tumults in order to prevent him or her from taking the floor. One of the most serious cases occurred in February 2017, when conservative journalist Milo Yiannopoulos was invited by students to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. Hundreds of left-wing extremists gathered to prevent the event and, after causing an estimated $100,000 worth of damage, succeeded. A few months later, a "Free Speech Week" was organized but, despite the university spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on security, most of the scheduled events were canceled because of the same intolerants. The situation was (and is) so bad that in 2019, then-President Trump issued an executive order conditioning federal funding to universities on respect for free speech.

Unfortunately, this nefarious trend is not limited to the U.S., but is widespread in various parts of the globe, as evidenced by news reports and research on the subject.

For this reason, the Machiavelli Center has determined to devote to the issue its first "MachiavelliPolicy," a new series of policy papers intended to offer legislative proposals to decision makers.

In the paper Protecting freedom of assembly and public expression of thought by introducing a new crime we analyze how the current Italian law does not guarantee effective protection of the aforementioned freedoms. At present, violent disturbances to the exercise of the right of assembly and public manifestation of thought fall under a residual case of crime such as private violence, which has a particularly mild edictal framework in the minimum and with respect to which judicial discretion weighs considerably.

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The way we have identified to rectify these flaws, as well as to remove the offending conduct from the scope of numerous reward and deflective institutions and to allow for the anticipation of criminal intervention, is to establish the new crime "Violence or threatening to prevent public meetings or meetings open to the public."

It is not a matter of adding prohibitions or criminalizing practices that are lawful today, but rather of adequately countering and punishing a behavior that is already unlawful with respect to which Italian law is currently too lax. It is a matter of dutiful action to guarantee a sacrosanct right - freedom of speech - without which our democratic system cannot function, nor can it truly call itself such.

The call to the reader is to consult our paper by clicking here. Our commitment as Machiavelli Center is to spread it as widely as possible among policymakers and urge them to take concrete action to protect the rights of thought, speech and assembly.

If you wish to participate in this effort, you may:

  • make a donation to the Center to fund its activities;
  • share this article and the paper (at the bottom of the page you will find a blue bar with convenient buttons for automatic sharing);
  • write to your representatives in Parliament, inviting them to read and consider our proposal. You can search for the parliamentarians who represent you and their e-mail addresses at this page for the House and this one for the Senate: both allow you to filter results by constituency of election.

We will keep you updated on how the proposal will proceed on our website, but it may also be a good idea to subscribe to the Machiavelli newsletter.

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Founder and President of Centro Studi Machiavelli. Graduated in Historical Sciences (University of Milan) and PhD in Political Studies (Sapienza University), he is professor of "History and doctrine of jihadism" and "Geopolitics of the Middle East" at Cusano University. From 2018 to 2019 he was Special Advisor on Immigration and Terrorism to the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Guglielmo Picchi. His latest book (as editor) is Topicality of sovereignism. Between pandemic and war.