On the centenary of the March on Rome, the coup that started the country’s 20-year fascist period, public debate on regime’s legacy in Italy is filling the pages of national newspapers and Italian social media.
Conversations around the darkest chapter of modern Italian history are also spurred by the self-evident post-fascist roots of the country’s new government.
The newly elected Senate speaker, Ignazio La Russa, is an avid collector of Fascist memorabilia, while Italy’s new premier, Giorgia Meloni, once praised former dictator Benito Mussolini as a “good politician, the best in the last 50 years”.
But, while fascist nostalgia might not come as a surprise in Italy – ever heard the good old adage: “ha fatto anche cose buone” (“he also did good things”)? – you may also know that Italy has laws against support for Fascism, or defending fascist ideals.
So why don’t these laws apply to certain political movements and high-profile figures in Italy?
Though such laws exist, they are rarely enforced. Here’s why.
Italy’s main piece of legislation against the dissemination of fascist propaganda is the so-called Scelba Law (Legge Scelba), introduced in June 1952 to complement Disposition XII of the Italian Constitution – the disposition outlaws any attempt to restore the defunct Fascist party.
Briefly, the Scelba Law prohibits any member of “an association, movement or group of people […] pursuing anti-democratic ends associated with the fascist party” and/or using violence “as a means of political struggle”.
It also prohibits “exalting members, principles, events and behaviours of fascist nature”, and carries a potential sentence of between five and twelve years in prison.
While the Scelba Law might at first glance appear to be a fairly stringent piece of legislation, it actually has no power against those holding or glorifying fascist views unless it can be proved that they are actively working to reorganise the former Fascist party and undermine democracy.
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The scope of the law has been confirmed by the Italian Constitutional Court on multiple occasions, including in 1957, when the court stated that the law only applies to acts “aimed at restoring Fascism in Italy” – something which, by its very own nature, is incredibly hard to prove.
That’s ultimately why, despite attempts on the part of centre-left opposition forces to have them outlawed, political groups with patently fascist views, ideals and symbols – from the Fascism and Freedom Movement (Fascismo e Libertà) founded in 1991 to the newer Forza Nuova and CasaPound – are allowed to carry on their activities to this day.
That’s also why, aside from in a few isolated cases, making the ‘saluto romano’ (Roman salute) is not something that leads to a conviction for ‘apology of fascism’ in an Italian court of law.
Different law, different problems
Issues regarding the enforcement of the Scelba Law largely contributed to the introduction of the ‘Mancino Law’ in 1993.
The bill, which sought to widen the scope of the Scelba law, broadly punishes anyone “disseminating ideas based on racial or ethnic superiority” or inciting “discrimination or violence” based on racial motives, including through the use of emblems or symbols.
Breaking the law is punishable by anything from six months to six years in jail.
But as with the Scelba Law, the enforcement of the Mancino Law has been problematic, to say the least, albeit for different reasons.
Firstly, some judges are hesitant to resort to using the Mancino Law because it doesn’t explicitly refer to the dissemination of fascist ideals.
Secondly – and more importantly – it is up to individual judges to balance the nature of a defendant’s actions against article 21 of the Italian Constitution, which protects freedom of expression.
If article 21 is found to outweigh any considerations made under the Mancino Law, the defendant is acquitted.
Over the years, many Italian far-right forces have questioned the constitutionality of the Mancino Law, claiming it undermined people’s right to freedom of expression.
In 2014, the League party attempted to call a national referendum on repealing the law but failed to reach the required number of signatures.
Four years later, Lorenzo Fontana, who was recently elected new lower house speaker, demanded the abrogation of the law, which he described as an “instrument used by globalists to shroud their anti-Italian racism in anti-fascism”. Nothing came of it in the end.
Fiano Law: a swing and a miss
Another attempt at tightening existing regulation against fascist propaganda was made in 2017, when left-wing Democratic Party (PD) deputy Emanuele Fiano managed to get his draft bill (Legge Fiano) approved in the lower house of parliament.
The bill effectively sought to resolve the issues inherent in the Scelba and Mancino Laws by outlawing the dissemination of any “item, image or symbol” associated with either Fascism or Nazism.
The law would have placed Italy on the same level as Germany, which has long banned the use of fascist or nazist greetings and slogans as well as the sale of analogous memorabilia and emblems through Section 86a of its Criminal Code.
But political parties Forza Italia, Brothers of Italy and the Five-Star Movement all opposed the Fiano Law, claiming it posed an unjustified threat to freedom of speech – Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s new PM, went as far as dubbing the law “a freedom-destroying folly”.
Ultimately then, Fiano’s draft bill never made it past the Senate and ended up being consigned to oblivion.