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An Italian academic is facing criminal defamation charges after describing a government minister’s espousal of a white supremacist conspiracy as “neo-Hitlerite.”

Donatella Di Cesare, professor of theoretical philosophy at the Sapienza University of Rome, told Times Higher Education that the lawsuit against her, one of several brought recently by members of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, was a means of “intimidation,” warning of an “authoritarian stranglehold” suppressing public discourse.

“It is easy to imagine that those within the academic world and within the cultural world who would like to speak, to intervene in the public debate on topical issues, will no longer do so or will do so much less,” she said.

The charges against Di Cesare stem from April 2023, when the Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, the brother-in-law of Meloni and a staunch political ally, said in a public speech on migration, “We cannot surrender to the idea of ethnic replacement.”

The phrase “ethnic replacement” is strongly associated with the “great replacement theory,” a racist conspiracy that white Europeans are being deliberately “replaced” by migrants of color, often from Muslim-majority countries, in a plot led by Jewish people.

Perpetrators of several terrorist attacks, among them the 2022 supermarket attack in Buffalo, N.Y., the 2019 mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue attack, have referenced the conspiracy.

Di Cesare, who has published extensively on antisemitism, racism and conspiracy theories, was subsequently asked about the comments during an appearance on the talk show DiMartedì. She described the concept of “ethnic replacement” as a “conspiracist myth” and “the heart of Hitlerism,” noting its presence in Nazi ideology that led to the Holocaust.

“I believe that the minister’s words cannot be taken as a gaffe, because he spoke like a Gauleiter, like a neo-Hitlerite governor,” she added.

Di Cesare was indicted earlier this month, telling Times Higher Education that Lollobrigida accused her of wanting to “defame both the Italian government and his family.” The first hearing will take place on May 15.

“I only made a historical comparison, a comment on the formula he used, ‘ethnic replacement,’” she said. “There was no insult to his person, his family or the government.

“I am still now very shocked and cannot understand how a minister of the republic can drag a philosopher into court. It is really disturbing. This matter does not only concern me, but our entire democracy.”

Despite receiving “many messages of solidarity” from colleagues, friends and strangers, Di Cesare said, she was yet to hear from her university. Times Higher Education contacted the Sapienza University of Rome for comment.

The indictment follows the conviction of writer Roberto Saviano in October. He was fined €1,000 ($1,069) for calling Meloni and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini “bastards” over their migration policies after a six-month-old baby from Guinea drowned in the Mediterranean.

Meloni is also suing the historian Luciano Canfora for defamation after he described her as a “neo-Nazi at heart,” with proceedings beginning this month, a lawsuit that prompted outcry within the academic community.

The legal actions against scholars could trigger a “perverse mechanism of self-censorship,” Di Cesare warned. “In this way … it is democracy itself that is undermined. A democratic country needs the contribution of philosophers, writers, historians, intellectuals.”

Angela Di Gregorio, professor of comparative public law at the University of Milan, said Italy’s government was “abusing the charge of slander.”

“We have to maintain a strong, free media system, an independent judiciary and other watchdogs,” she said.

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