Love it or hate it, MTV’s “Jersey Shore” is a phenomenon. Besides treating viewers to the fascinating(?) lives of the housemates, the show seemingly has a high tolerance for language perpetuating negative Italian-American images. The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), among other organizations, objected when MTV promoted the show using a demeaning term for a lower-class urban Italian-American. MTV backed off somewhat, but some cast members still use the G-word regularly to describe themselves. However, this story begins decades before Snooki and friends began polluting the airwaves.
To combat derogatory slurs and stereo- types, some two dozen New York City residents formed the Italian American Anti-Defamation League in early 1970. The group, which later changed its name to the Italian American Civil Rights League, quickly got active with protests, and, within several months, claimed 45,000 dues-paying members. It gained national prominence when a big-time Italian-American singer named Frank Sinatra performed a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden.
Over the years, cultural slights against Italian-Americans persisted, and were countered by threats of product boycotts. Under pressure, Alka-Seltzer agreed to withdraw a critically acclaimed and wildly popular TV ad where an actor, supposedly taping a commercial for the fictional “Magdalini’s Meatballs, ” has to keep eating the product and saying “Mamma mia, that’s-a spicy meatball-a! ” in a faux Italian accent. An obvious example, safe to say. But, occasionally the link to what’s Italian is considerably more obscure.
Lamberto Lucarelli, whose ancestors are Italian, visited the waste transfer station owned by the town of Old Saybrook, Conn., where he saw a toilet seat extender. Before leaving the facility, Lucarelli told some people that he was interested in the item. (For the unac- quainted reader, an extender is designed to raise the height of the toilet seat to make sitting and getting up easier — a big help for people with arthritis or hip, knee or back problems. Indeed, anyone with limited mobility, including women in late pregnancy, can find the widely marketed device useful.)
When he subsequently visited the transfer station, he saw the item set apart on a table with a note saying, “Save for Lamberto. All yours. Bert. ” Although he then no longer wanted the extender, several months elapsed before the item was removed from where any transfer station visitor or user could see it. But, as Lucarelli saw it, the toilet seat extender on public view was a slur on his Italian ancestry. He accused the town of maintaining a hostile atmosphere toward Italians. He reported the matter to the town police who ended up making no arrests. For its part, the state’s division of criminal justice declined to prosecute anyone in connection with the goings-on at the transfer station. (A NIAF representative, who for many years has tracked real and imagined slurs and discriminatory acts, said she had never seen or heard a charge based on a toilet seat.)
Lucarelli filed two separate complaints with the state commission on human rights and opportunities, alleging discrimination by the town and by the criminal justice division. After reviewing the charges, the commission dismissed the complaint against the town because it had been filed more than three months after the statutory filing deadline. It also dismissed the complaint against the state for failure to allege a legally sufficient claim. The trial court affirmed the dismissals.
On appeal, a three-judge panel upheld the lower court, finding “substantial evidence in the record ... that the plaintiff’s filing [against the town] was untimely” and that the claim against the state had no legal merit. “[N]othing suggests that a failure to prosecute ... was based on discrimination ... [and] it is not clear that any crime has occurred for the state to prosecute.”
[Lucarelli v. Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, et al., No. AC 33801, Conn.App., June 12, 2012.]
Barry Shanoff is a Rockville, Md., attorney and general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.
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