CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Politics in Public - Freedom of Assembly and the right to Protest (Report No. 8)

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Politics in Public

Freedom of Assembly and the Right to Protest


Processions, demonstrations and other forms of public assembly are significant events in Italian religious, cultural and political life. A wide range of demonstrations are held during the year. The state commemorates victory in the First World War in early November and the liberation from Nazi-Fascism in 1945 on 25 April; later, on 2 June, the establishment of the Italian Republic is celebrated. Various trade unions are involved in May Day parades each year (Donno 1990; Isnenghi 1997; Scoppola 1995). Besides these national events there are a range of more localised parades and demonstrations including commemorations organised by civil authorities; religious ceremonies and carnival parades; re-enactments of historic events; and a variety of social and political demonstrations that take place all over the country.

In Italy the right to parade is encompassed in the notion of freedom of assembly which is a basic constitutional right. Article 17 of the 1948 Constitution of the Italian Republic states that:

Citizens have the right to gather peacefully and without arms. For meetings, including those held in a place open to the public, no prior notice is required. For meetings in public spaces prior notice must be given to the police authorities, who may forbid them only for valid reasons of security or public safety.

The concept of public order does not in fact appear in the Constitution but instead the notion of public safety is invoked in both articles 16 and 17. Threats to public safety are considered a necessary requirement for restricting the rights both to circulate freely and to gather peacefully. The notion of public safety has been quite clearly defined, it is linked to the need to ensure the prevention of violence while aiming at the maintenance of a peaceful coexistence for all sections of the community (Corso 1979; Fiore 1980). Any threat to a peaceful condition can be dealt with by preventing events that may contribute to its breach. The potential disturbance of public safety justifies measures that may be taken by the authorities to restrict the rights of citizens.

Legal Constraints

Although freedom of assembly is protected by the Constitution, it is however, subjected to restrictions in some way. Firstly, meetings must be peaceful and participants should not carry any form of weapons. Secondly, for meetings in public places prior notice must be given to the police authorities. For private meetings, or assemblies in places open to the public no prior notice is required.

Meetings can take both the form of assembramenti, that is occasional gatherings due to unexpected and unforeseen circumstances, and dimostrazioni which are gatherings that have a religious, civic or a political purpose. Further distinctions have been established on the basis of the location between private assemblies, assemblies open to the public and public assemblies. Private assemblies are gatherings that are held in private sites. Assemblies open to the public are held in places 'open to the public, this means premises or buildings to which access is allowed to members of the public at certain times or under certain conditions which are defined by the owners. Public assemblies are held in public places, which are understood to be any place where unrestricted access is allowed.

Further regulations to control public assemblies are set down in the legislation on public safety: the Testo Unico delle Leggi di Pubblica Sicurezza, known as TULPS (Single Text of the Laws of Public Safety). This law was established under the Royal Decree on Public Safety no. 773, and was originally introduced in 1931. Articles 18 to 27 of TULPS are concerned with the regulation of meetings in public places and with civic and religious processions.

TULPS was originally passed under the Fascist regime of Mussolini, but it has subsequently been refined through numerous judgements in the courts and some sections have been repealed. Furthermore the new Italian Constitution of 1948 has reversed the relationship between the power of the police authorities and freedom rights, and now the latter take priority over the former (Santosuosso 1988:1 85).

The basic requirement for holding a public assembly is to give three days notice to the authorities. The standard details that are required in the notice are the date, the rime, the place and the route of the proposed event. The notification must also include details of the individuals responsible for the organisation and it must also include personal details of any speakers when speeches are to be held. The notice must be given in to the questore, the police superintendent in charge of the local province. The questore has the power to prohibit public assemblies but only for valid reasons of security or public safety. If the questore wishes to make changes to the organisers plans, then he must notify them within 24 hours, but if he does not contact the organisers within this time, then they can legally assume that the demonstration can go ahead as planned. Thus the notification is not a request for permission, but is a communication that an assembly or a meeting is going to take place on a certain date, at a set time and along a specific route.

Policing Demonstrations.

The questore has responsibility to organise and co-ordinate the various police forces to control demonstrations. This can be a complex operation as there are five national police forces in Italy, two of which, the Polizia di Stato and Carabinieri, have responsibility for public order and public safety. The former is tinder the control of the Minister of the Interior, while the latter are controlled by the Ministry of Defence. Furthermore, use may also be made of the Guardia di Finanza if needs be as well as the Polizia Municipale which are under the control of the Mayor in each town. If trouble occurs as a result of a demonstration, then it is the questore who is held responsible and he can be removed from his post if necessary.

In the case of larger demonstrations where all of these forces might need to be deployed, the organisation of policing is carried out by a Comitato Provinciale per l'Ordine Pubblico e la Sicurezza. This is a committee made up of the questore, a commander of Carabiriieri and the prefetto, who is the local representative of the Minister of the Interior and who has overall authority to take all measures necessary to preserve law and order.

Negotiations and Agreements

Since the questore is responsible for public order and public safety he has the power to impose constraints on the rime and place of demonstrations and he can impose a variety of restraints and restrictions. The questore also has the power to ban an assembly on grounds of concern for public health, public order or morality; this applies to religious ceremonies as well as to more overtly political events. In practice the questore always tries to reach an agreement over any restrictions he wishes to impose. Meetings are held between the various parties to try to accommodate different requests and in most cases compromises are reached.

If a prohibition or conditions are to be imposed, then the promoters must be notified of these in advance of the event. The organisers are entitled to lodge an appeal to the Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale, the administrative regional court, to try to have the decision overturned. The questore must give clear reasons for the restrictions being imposed, because by banning an assembly he can be seen to be imposing limitations on basic constitutional rights. Although the right to appeal remains as a legal safeguard, it is a time consuming process and could not be used to solve disputes in the short term, hence the reliance on negotiations.


While the police have overall responsibility for public order, organisers of events are encouraged to deploy stewards both to control their own supporters and to ensure that any restrictions that have been imposed are complied with. Since the 1960s many of the trade unions have developed a more comprehensive stewarding system to reduce the need for police at their events. Although they have no formal training stewards are expected to ensure that the event is peaceful, orderly and legal and would normally be identified by badges or armbands. They are expected to protect the demonstrators from outside troublemakers and also from agent provocateurs who might be trying to stir up trouble from within the body of the demonstration.

If the promoters of a meeting fail to give notice, they are liable to a punishment of up to six months imprisonment and a fine up to L.800,000 (£300). It is not only people who are involved in the publicity and organisation of demonstrations who are considered as promoters, but this category also includes persons who have a more general involvement in its facilitation. This would include the people leading a demonstration and the stewards. However, individuals who address any such assembly are not liable to the same penalties. If an event is held even though a permit had been refused or conditions have been imposed by the authorities, persons who have contravened it, are punishable with up to one year s imprisonment and a fine of up to L.800,000 (£300). In this case those who address any such meeting are also liable to the same penalties.

Italian legislation does not operate a distinction between traditional or religious parades and political demonstrations. However, in practice there is obviously a clear difference between religious or civic processions that are held in rural towns or cities, which generate no opposition from any lobby or political group, and political rallies or meetings that involve one of the more radical groups. In the former instance permission for a parade can be given by the Mayor, who is responsible for public order in the absence of a local police station. Demonstrations or parades in a village or town are usually overseen by no more than a few members of the Carabinieri or Polizia Municipale who must always be present for public safety purposes.

In contrast, political demonstrations are often heavily policed by a variety of departments. In the case of political demonstrations a special police anti-riot squad, known as reparto mobile, is deployed and members of Digos, the political intelligence branch are also usually present. There are eight anti-riot police units across Italy, which receive specialised crowd control training. They may also be supported by other police forces, such as the Carabinieri. A variety of anti-riot equipment is available to the security forces, ranging from helmets, shields and truncheons to tear gas. Water cannons were used in the fifties. Rubber bullets are not used, and any attempts to introduce them have been rejected. Regulation firearms are always carried by police officers during demonstrations, in the past these have been widely and readily used against protesters.

Dispersing Gatherings

The police have a wide degree of discretionary powers to disperse gatherings both in public spaces and in places open to the public. Dispersion of an assembly can be carried out even if formal notification has been given and no ban has been imposed by the authorities. On the other hand failure to give notice to the authorities does not necessarily ensure a forcible break-up of a meeting by the police. Illegal gatherings can readily be dispersed but assemblies can also be dispersed when they are declared radunate sediziose (seditious assemblies). These consist of a gathering of at least ten people, which is deemed to be a threat to the peace. Radunate sediziose are declared when there is a degree of hostility against public authority or when the gathering is perceived to be about to disturb the peace.

For example, according to Article 22 of TULPS., a meeting would always be considered seditious if flags and emblems were carried which are symbols of social subversion, revolt or scorn towards the state, the government or the authorities. Demonstrators are also not allowed to wear forms of headgear that prevents them being identified. In practice, the police would tend to tolerate such infringements of the regulations in order to avoid confrontation or accusations by protesters that they acted in a way to restrict the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by Article 21 of the Italian Constitution.

Once a demonstration has been declared unlawful it can be dispersed by force. In the first instance the police must ask demonstrators to disperse peacefully. If such an order is still ignored after three such requests have been given then the police may actively disperse the demonstrators. The order to disperse refers to all persons attending the assembly and it is not only restricted to participants. However, no violence should be used against people who are unable to leave the scene or against people who are on the ground. During demonstrations it is permitted to photograph both participants and police officers, but in the case of a crowd being dispersed photographers may be asked to leave the scene. However, any request to give film to the police forces is illegal. Finally, if excessive violence or abuse has been committed during the dispersal of a gathering, police officers may be subjected to an investigation by a magistrate and disciplinary measures.

Changes in the Policing of Protests

In the fifty years since the end of the Second World War the style of policing at parades and demonstrations has changed frequently and dramatically. Over this period Italy has been through various cycles of violence and repression as trade unions, left-wing parties and more radical groups have challenged the authority of the state. The state has often been accused of an over aggressive reaction to popular protests and at times it has been asserted that they have colluded with right-wing extremists to provoke trouble. Policing has been at the heart of this issue and the police have regularly been accused of being partisan and over violent. Ultimately widespread reform of the police was a necessary part of ensuring that demonstrations would pass off peacefully (della Portia 1995: 5 5-63).

During the late-forties and early-fifties there was severe repression of all forms of political assemblies and demonstrations. This reflected the policy of Italian post-war governments in marginalising the working class and left-wing parties and excluding them from political power. The police were a militarised body, which were trained to repress any threats to public order. They were given considerable latitude in the use of firearms against demonstrators. During this period almost one hundred people were killed by the police while taking part in demonstrations.

In the early 1960s government policy changed and a softer approach was taken to the handling of demonstrations, but the policy of restraint was reversed following the explosion of student demonstrations and widespread political protests in 1968. The police responded to violent protests with violence and widespread protests from all sections of the left and trade unions greeted the deaths of six demonstrators in 1968 and 1969. This led to a softening of police tactics and a more systematic process of bargaining between police leadership and movement leadership was established in order to try to reduce the frequent public violence. Nevertheless over aggressive police intervention and a cavalier use of barons, vehicles and tear gas led to the death of several protesters and even a number of passers-by. In addition, a widespread perception that the police were colluding with right wing groups undermined confidence in the security forces still further. The state strategy of dealing with political protests came to be known as the ‘strategy of tension. It was believed that the government was manipulating those on the political fringes to forment violence and thereby increase public support for more authoritarian policies.

In the second half of the seventies the state came under more sustained attack by a number of violent radical groups. During this period many of the radical groups, such as the Autonomia Operaia, refused to give notice of their demonstrations since they did not acknowledge the authority of the state. They would not engage in any form of communication with the authorities and were often ready to provoke a violent reaction from the police. Instead the two sides confronted each other on the streets. As a result prohibitions were frequently imposed against public gatherings and the police often intervened aggressively to break up demonstrations without discriminating between peaceful and militant demonstrators. Emergency laws were passed to fight the various terrorist groups who were challenging the state and although they were seen as repressive these laws were successful in constraining violent protests and support for the more militant groups.

By the eighties the state had largely defeated the threat of terrorism and as a consequence much of the emergency legislation was revised. Furthermore significant reforms of the police were introduced that led to the demilitarisation and professionalisation of the various forces. In part these were a result of pressures from within the police themselves who wanted a more democratic structure with the right to belong to trade unions. In part from a desire on behalf of the state for a higher quality of officers and in part it was a response to public concerns that the police were partisan and often over aggressive (Marinelli & Mazzei 1988). Demilitarisation, which involved making the police answerable to the Minister of the Interior, was particularly significant in changing police culture; while improved training was also reflected in changes to police practice.

One significant outcome was a more tolerant attitude toward protesting groups. Policing of demonstrations became much softer in style and more considered in its approach. Extra attention was paid to preventative intelligence gathering and potential troublemakers were more selectively targeted to ensure that demonstrations were able to pass off with a minimum of disruption. At the same time peaceful civil disobedience was more readily tolerated and as a result organisers of public assemblies were more willing to co-operate and collaborate with the police. This approach to the policing of demonstrations has continued to the present and as a result although there are still an extensive range of public gatherings and protests, violent conflict is not a major source of concern.

Recent Disputes

This new style of policing has now become more fully established and the policing of demonstrations have become more refined and focused. Many organisers feel that the police authorities now took a much more relaxed attitude to demonstrations, notification was accepted within the three-day time limit and any changes were normally subject to negotiation and discussion rather than simply being imposed. The police were also felt to be less assertive on the streets and were prepared to be flexible rather than sticking literally to the law.

However, political and legal disputes do still arise over demonstrations. The most significant recent case for legal purposes occurred in 1991 when a demonstration planned for Bolzano by the Sudtiroler Schutzen, a pro-German speaking organisation, was countered by the neo-Fascist MSI who announced that they also intended to hold a protest meeting in the city on the same day. The questore decided that both demonstrations should be prohibited for fear of public disorder. The Schützen ignored the ban, held their demonstration and the organisers were subsequently prosecuted and fined. However, on appeal it was decided that the questore had been wrong to ban the demonstration by the Schützen and the conviction was overturned. The court asserted that the questore should have allowed the first demonstration of which he had been notified and restrict the second, which was the cause of potential disorder (Ruling 6812, 13 June 1994).

Further contentious demonstrations have resulted from political protests held by left-wing groups opposing meetings organised by extreme right-wings groups on the issue of racism towards immigrants or as a result of counter-demonstrations organised by supporters of Alleanza Nazionale (formerly MSI) against rallies by Lega Nord in support of their demand for secession from Italy. In general, following the previously cited case, the police are expected to facilitate the initial demonstration but they also try to ensure that the opponents have a right to protest. Nevertheless they also try to ensure that the two sides do not meet and may well call in extra riot police to ensure events pass peacefully.

Since the early nineties Lega Nord has become the strongest party in much of northern Italy and they have attempted to create new symbols and rituals that emphasise the distinctive historical and ethnic roots of the region which they have named Padania. Part of this process has been to hold parades and demonstrations to commemorate newly significant historical events. But the League has also begun to systematically challenge the authority and symbols of the Italian state by holding protests at various ceremonies and this has led them to make accusations of discrimination and a denial of their civil rights.

Lega Nord supporters recently demonstrated in the northern cities of Gorizia and Verona during official state ceremonies, and in Brescia, during an unofficial visit of President Scalfaro in September 1997. The demonstration in Brescia happened at a very tense time and the police were deployed to prevent Lega Nord supporters from entering the main square. However, tension arose and minor clashes occurred between opposing groups. Lega Nord subsequently complained about the inequality of treatment, because they had been restricted in their right to protest freely in the town while Padanian flags and emblems were banned from the square by the police. The League have also accused the authorities of manipulating counter-demonstrations so as to be able to restrict their events and of failing to protect them from their political opponents.

There is something of a contrast here. The state authorities, representatives of political parties and trade unionists all feel that changes in police culture and the reduction of social conflict are reflected in softer policing in recent years and a greater respect for the right of all sections to make their political opinions heard and seen. But the Lega Nord were more concerned with an apparent inequality of treatment and with restrictions which were being imposed by the central state on to the freedom of people to demonstrate against the state itself. In part this may be a result of their comparatively recent entry into national politics, which only dates from the late eighties, but in part it may indicate that the state still shows partiality to some sections of society. In the 1940s and 1950s it was the trade unionists that felt threatened, in 1960s and 1970s it was the radical left and in the 1990s it is the secessionists of the Lega Nord.


The right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression, which are protected by the Italian Constitution of 1948, have reduced the discretion of the authorities to impose restraints on parades and demonstrations. Over the years some parts of the public safety legislation (TULPS) have been declared unconstitutional by the courts, and although they are no longer used they have nor been repealed.

Once notice has been given, the authorities can refuse to allow a demonstration on grounds of concern for public order, or they can place restrictions. In practice some form of accommodation is always sought and constraints on the route, the time or the style of the event are only imposed after discussions and agreement with the organisers.

Over the years the style of policing at demonstrations has changed considerably. A harsh and aggressive regime in the fifties, the early sixties and the seventies has given way to a much softer and tolerant handling of the demonstrations in the eighties and the early nineties. With social conflict at a lower level, a culture of mediation has prevailed.

Regarding confrontational demonstrations, the authorities have been required to protect demonstrations that have been duly notified. However, the right to protest at another gathering is also guaranteed, though no right is given to restrict the rights of others by breaking up or blocking the route of a legal demonstration. If this is the case police can intervene to avoid confrontation and to facilitate the legal meeting, but at the same time they are expected to guarantee freedom of expression to the other side. In practice restrictions can be imposed by police both to contain the situation or in order to reduce the possibility of public disorder.

Disputes involving some political parties and extremist organisations have recently occurred. Nonetheless, the authorities tend to maintain a selective attitude in their policing of the demonstrations. Thus a willingness to ban or disperse parades seems to depend on the political climate, both at local level and at national level. At the present time, football violence is the most serious public order issue to be managed by the authorities and it requires significant numbers of police to prevent public disorder when big matches take place.

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