Gagging order sticks in academic craw

August 8, 1997

ITALIAN academics are in uproar over a gagging order issued by the academic senate of Rome's La Sapienza University following the murder of a student.

The university, the biggest in Europe, has issued a directive forbidding its lecturers from making statements to the press without prior approval from the university authorities.

A group of MPs has suggested to the university minister, Luigi Berlinguer, that this amounts to a limitation of the right to free speech.

The unprecedented ban came in the wake of the May 9 murder of a student, Marta Russo, on the La Sapienza campus.

Soon after the shooting, some academics and university employees were accused of having withheld evidence from the police. Rome's chief of police said he felt the university was observing an omerta, the Mafia's law of silence.

The main suspect in the shooting is an otherwise respectable researcher. But the messy and often contradictory evidence that police have gathered from his colleagues has led the Italian media to investigate what it sees as a deep malaise in universities in general and in La Sapienza in particular.

Many academics, critical of the system of power and patronage that appears to rule the universities, have contributed to the media debate.

Armando Gnisi, a literature professor, appeared on television and described La Sapienza as "an infernal place", denouncing a "Mafia-like" system which he claims rules careers and appointments.

The academic senate has resolved to adopt disciplinary action against Gnisi, and to write to all university employees "to inform them that interviews in the context of the university must be approved by the rector or by presidents of departments".

Gianni Orlandi, a senate member and a candidate for the rectorship in the autumn elections, claimed he did not remember such a document being approved. But it was produced by the senate under the presidency of the rector, Giorgio Tecce.

Orlandi said: "For a long time the media took no notice of the profound crisis of La Sapienza. Now that, unfortunately, the Marta Russo case has brought it to attention we must not make the mistake of behaving as if we were in a besieged castle."

Raffaele Simone, a linguist at Rome's Second University and an outspoken critic of the university system, said: "I'm amazed. Steps are never taken against professors. Not for absenteeism, not for illegal exams, not when they do business instead of teaching. Only when they speak critically of the university."

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