Dangerous Bars

Perhaps Richard Humphreys, the Sioux Falls man who for his “burning Bush” comment was sentenced recently to over three years in prison, should have tried the “drunk” defense instead of the 1st Amendment defense. It worked in fascist Italy in the 1930s.

In his book Informers (Delatori, which is unfortunately not available in English translation), the Italian historian Mimmo Franzinelli cites various instances of Italians who, when in their cups, were careless enough to criticize the Duce, Benito Mussolini. In a section of his book titled Dangerous Bars (which forms part of Chapter 2: The Spy Next Door), Franzinelli writes that the offenders' “state of drunkenness” in which they made their remarks “worked in their favor” when charges were brought against them.

For example, in 1933 a Tuscan farmer named Egisto Ceragioli met two fascists in a bar and invited them to drink with him. In the course of their carousing, Ceragioli remarked: “I survived the last war, and I'm still strong enough to go down to Rome with my pistol permit and kill that pig Mussolini!” The unfortunate Ceragioli was arrested, and his wife wrote a letter to the Duce imploring clemency, explaining her husband's conduct as a result of “excessive libations,” and protesting her family's loyalty to the fascist regime. The incautious husband was sentenced to a mere month in prison.

In 1936, another Tuscan farmer, Giocondo Rossi, was arrested for having said in a bar: “The Duce is a usurper! We've all become beggars because of him. If he were here now, I'd gouge one of his eyes out! I'd like to crack his head open!” Witnesses confirmed that Rossi had made the remarks; but in the defendant's favor was the fact that he had “a tendency to drink, and that night he was completely drunk on wine.” And so the tippler was let off lightly.

In 1935, Angelo Rosci, while under the influence, was overheard by a fascist to say: “Italy is a bully! Italy is a wreck!” This same fascist undertook a citizen's arrest. On their way to the authorities, the two men passed some fascists who were extolling the virtues of Mussolini, Empire Builder. The still-tipsy Rosci shouted out, “F*** him!” Once sober, Rosci sought to excuse him comments by ascribing them to an altered state of mind induced by too many afternoon glasses of wine. He was let out of prison after a few days but kept under surveillance till 1940.

Other offenders, however, were not so lucky. In 1933, a poverty-stricken man named Giuseppe Cernetti was arrested and imprisoned for drunkenness. He opined to his cellmate: “Mussolini is a scoundrel. He's robbed millions and millions. He's a pig, a coward.” The cellmate dutifully reported Cernetti's remarks to the warden, who after interviewing Cernetti decided that he was suffering from a “grave mental imbalance” and had him committed to a mental hospital.

In 1936, a carpenter named Angelo Gurrieri was arrested for having offended in a state of drunkenness the Duce, the king and the regime. He was sentenced to five years in an internment zone, during which time he accumulated ten more convictions for antifascist remarks. He was set at liberty in 1943, about a month after the fall of the fascist government.

Was Humphreys drunk when he made his remarks, and if so, would the drunk defense have worked in his case? Of course, had he used such a defense, the hapless Humphreys would have implicitly denied that his right to make a political joke was guaranteed him by the 1st Amendment. But in any case, the federal government seems to have unofficially repealed that amendment already.

Mussolini's fall from power, by the way, was occasioned by his failed dream of empire. Convinced that an alliance with Nazi Germany would result in the aggrandizement of Italy's empire, he pledged complete support of Germany and entered WWII at its side. As a consequence, he lost his African colonies and in 1943 was forced to step down as head of the government after the Allied invasion of Sicily. In 1945, he was captured by Italian communists and executed. His body was then strung up by the heels in a Milanese piazza.

December 10, 2002

Kevin Beary (send him mail) writes from his home in Italy.