Comedian Facing Criminal Prosecution for Insulting Religious Leader at Political Rally:

The Times (London) reports:

An Italian comedienne who said that Pope Benedict XVI would go to Hell and be tormented by homosexual demons is facing a prison term of up to five years.

Addressing a Rome rally in July, Sabrina Guzzanti [said,] ... after warning everyone that within 20 years Italian teachers would be vetted and chosen by the Vatican, ... "But then, within 20 years the Pope will be where he ought to be -— in Hell, tormented by great big poofter devils, and very active ones, not passive ones." ...

She is facing prosecution for "offending the honour of the sacred and inviolable person" of Benedict XVI.

Giovanni Ferrara, the Rome prosecutor, is invoking the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Vatican, which stipulates that an insult to the Pope carries the same penalty as an insult to the Italian President. Prosecution requires authorisation from the Ministry of Justice, for which Mr Ferrara has applied....

The July rally was called to protest against alleged interference by the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Italian affairs, from abortion to gay rights, but also to attack the Prime Minister for passing "ad personam" laws to protect his own interests and avoid prosecution on corruption allegations....

The move to prosecute her over her anti-papal remarks was praised by some on the centre Right, including Luca Volonte, a Christian Democrat, who said that "gratuitous insults must be punished".

However, many people were strongly critical. Paolo Guzzanti, Ms Guzzanti's father and a centre Right MP, said the move was "a return to the Middle Ages”....

Even certain sections of the Church are unimpressed. Father Bartolomeo Sorge, a Jesuit scholar, told La Repubblica the move to prosecute Ms Guzzanzi was incomprehensible. "We Christians put up with many insults, it is part of being a Christian, as is forgiveness. I feel sure the Pope has already forgiven those who insulted him on Piazza Navona."

The article also points to this stanza from Dante, which "condemned Boniface VIII to Hell even before his death" (Henry Boyd, translator):
“Shame of the Papal Chair! and art thou come,
Hollow and dismal from the fiery tomb,”
He cried -– “a later doom the Prophet told –-
But come, Seducer of the Spouse of God,
Who rul’d the christian world with iron rod,
Come! thine eternal revenues behold!”

I think suggesting, even humorously, that your ideological enemies ought to be sexually abused is in pretty poor taste. But it seems to me that a democracy should allow even such speech, especially when it comes to important religious and political leaders.

Even if in theory public discourse wouldn't lose much from insults such as this, I think the U.S. Supreme Court was right in saying that the line between fair criticism and "outrageous" criticism can't be reliably drawn by legal institutions. And this is especially so when the judgment of the decisionmakers can easily be colored by their ideological sympathy with or antipathy to the target of the speech. Plus, of course, allowing prosecutions such as this will also encourage censorship envy on the part of those who want to suppress alleged blasphemy against their own religion and criticism of their own religious leaders; and it will make it harder to resist calls for such further censorship.

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.