It appears the fight over Lebensraum is now being waged over liquor store shelf space. An American couple has triggered a free speech controversy in Italy after complaining about the sale of wine with the image of Hitler on the label or other labels for “Mein Kampf” wine or wine with the motto “Ein volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer” (one people, one empire, one Fuhrer). Michael Hirsch, a lawyer from Philadelphia, complained about the sale of such items. In Italy, prosecutors are looking into the matter for possible criminal charges. The question is whether the producer should have a right to supply such bottles and customers should have the right to buy such bottles.
I certainly agree with Hirsch (whose wife’s family has holocaust survivors) that the sale of these bottles are offensive and I also agree with the decision to complain to the local supermarket for carrying such offensive items. I would have done the same thing in complaining to the establishment.
However, it is not clear when Hirsch went to the media whether he was demanding action by the government even though such products are lawful in the United States. Indeed, I recently represented a vodka manufacturer which successfully challenged a bar on sales due to the alleged offensive nature of its label.
The media coverage led Andrea Riccardi, the Italian integration minister, to issue a statement “to reassure our American friends who visit our country that our Constitution and our culture rejects racism, anti-Semitism and Nazi fascism.” For her part, Prosecutor Mario Giulio Schinaia said that she is looking into possible criminal charges.
We have previously discussed limitations on free speech in countries like Germany following World War II — crimes that include any Nazi symbols or material that have led to arrests for things like ringtones. Obviously, critics of the wine are concerned with more than a few skinheads getting blitzkrieged on Hitler schnapps. It is hard to believe that the wine is being bought simply as a novelty by most of these customers and is part of a resurgence of fascist political groups in Europe, particularly in countries like Germany, France, and Greece.
I have been a long critic of such laws as doing little but forcing speech underground and making martyrs out of fascists who simply alter symbols slightly to get around the restrictions. I continue to maintain that, even in countries with fascist histories like Italy and Germany, the only solution to bad speech is more speech. Censorship historically has done little to change minds. People have a basic right to express their political viewpoints and to associate with like-minded people in the political realm.
The wine controversy comes at a time when some legislators are seeking to decriminalize the creation of fascist parties in Italy.
The stories on the wine controversy quote prosecutors as citing a crime in Italy for “apologising for fascism.” This curiously worded law is the barrier not only to free speech but to the creation of political parties. By “apologising,” the Italians appear to mean something closer to “defending” or “advocating.” As a civil libertarian, I have considerable concerns with such content-based regulation of speech. While I share the concern over the resurgence of fascism, I tend to gravitate toward greater than less free speech in such cases. Moreover, the wine controversy shows how far such limitations can extend. It could include parody or artistic expression as well as political speech.
Notably, Austria recently dropped a criminal probe and allowed Hitler wine to be sold in that country. His decision could lead to some interesting conflicts with teeshirts featuring the wine but showing Hitler in circumvention of national laws. For those seeking to limit speech, the danger of liquor lebensraum is that it could spread to an array of consumer items glorifying the Third Reich.
One producer is Roland Marte, 48, who produces an array of Hitler bottles including schnapps. He has described the line as “Nostalgic bottles from a former historical great.”
The fact that an American couple triggered this debate is ironic since these wines would be entirely protected in the United States. Once again, it is not clear that the Hirsch’s did anything other than raise awareness of an obnoxious product. However, prosecutors should not be involved in such matters in my view.
What do you think?