In Italy, unions mobilise to defend academic freedom

published 22 May 2019 updated 7 June 2019

After the suspension of a teacher for the contents of a video produced by her students, the Italian education unions are taking action to denounce an attack on academic freedom and a serious threat to democracy.

Rosa Maria Dell’Aria, a 63 year-old teacher from Palermo, was suspended last week for 15 days based on allegations that she had not “supervised her students’ work”. Her pupils had produced a video that compared a decree of the current right-wing government to the laws of the Mussolini era.

Union reactions – a call for democracy and freedom of speech

The suspension caused an immediate public outcry and led the Italian education unions to issue a common statement in which they call a day of action on May 24 in defence of academic freedom and the right to teach. They call on the authorities to respect the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Italian Constitution, such as pluralism, and defend teacher autonomy as a key to the exercise of the profession. The unions denounce the “dangerous tendency [of politics] to invade and condition the space in which teaching and learning take place”.

Maddalena Gissi, General Secretary of CISL Scuola, said that “the sanction imposed on [Dell’Aria] is unfair and profoundly wrong. Censorship is inappropriate in schools, which by nature aim to foster free exchange of views. The school's task is not to prevent pupils from expressing their thoughts, but to help them formulate judgments and opinions in a climate that guarantees pluralism, respect and tolerance.” She also reiterated the call on the authorities to cancel the disciplinary measure “so that [Dell’Aria] can immediately return to work and resume the indispensable dialogue with her students.”

According to Francesco Sinopoli, General Secretary of FLC-CGIL, “if the police are to decide what and how teachers can and should teach their students, it means that these students were right to compare what happened in 1938 with today’s developments. This teacher’s case has become our issue because through her dismissal, it is the entire education system that is being punished. Unions, students, teachers, and school staff need to mobilise massively to support her and defeat those who consider critical thinking an offence.”

Pino Turi, head of UIL Scuola, took a clear stance in favour of academic freedom. “[it] is fundamental to democracies. What happened in Palermo should never happen again. Our national education system should protect the exercise of teachers’ fundamental rights, as guaranteed under our constitution. This is why we should mobilise even more against the government’s attempt to regionalise the Italian school system.”

David Edwards, Education International General Secretary, has voiced the international support to teachers in Italy, stating that “A government that needs to silence criticism from its teachers and students is proving that it is dangerously leaning towards authoritarianism. If fundamental rights like freedom of expression are not granted inside the schools, the democratic foundations of society are at risk.”

David Edwards has written on the subject in a blogpost entitled "Attacks on Democracy and Teachers in Italy" that you can read here.

Francesco Sinopoli, General Secretary of FLC-CGIL, has published a blog post on EI's Worlds of Education that you can read by clicking here.