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Taking a Whack at Tony Soprano  
Will Article 1, Section 20, of the Illinois Constitution come out against the popular TV series?  

    Sept. 1 —  Are they freakin’ kidding? Some guys in Chicago are suing HBO because the network’s hit show, “The Sopranos,” defames Italian-Americans. They claim that such defamation is illegal in Illinois based on an obscure clause in the state Constitution.  

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  THE WHOLE THING sounds a little weasily to legal experts—the modern equivalent of nailing gangster Al Capone on tax evasion because the murder, bootlegging and gun-running charges couldn’t stick.
        “The case is, of course, preposterous,” David Meyer, a University of Illinois constitutional-law professor and “Sopranos” fan, said after consiglieres for both sides battled it out in a Chicago courtroom Thursday.
        The group—which is called the American-Italian Defense Association—says it is seeking neither to halt the production of “The Sopranos” nor any money in damages (Yeah, right! This is America!). All AIDA wants is for Judge Robert Siebel to condemn the show—literally—because it defames Italian-Americans. (Hey, why stop there? Did you see the episode with the Hasidic Jews? That was either defamation—or at least definition—of character).
        Siebel will render his decision Sept. 13.
        Mock if you will (thanks, but I already did), but Article 1, Section 20, of the Illinois Constitution does say that “communications that portray criminality, depravity or lack of virtue in, or that incite violence, hatred, abuse or hostility toward, a person or group of persons by reference to religious, racial, ethnic, national or regional affiliation are condemned.”
        So if such things are officially “condemned,” why not ask a judge to condemn the show officially, AIDA argued?
        In situations like these, journalists try all day to get “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini on the phone, but I did what comes naturally to me: calling a party hack from the Chicago Democratic machine.
        Remembering those heady days of patriotic fervor that accompanied the ratification of the Illinois Constitution in 1970, I called Dawn Clark Netsch, who helped draft that august document (she was also the Illinois comptroller and a Democratic candidate for governor in 1994 when Democratic candidates for anything didn’t do so well).
        Clark Netsch told me that the provision was the pet project of her colleague Victor Arrigo, who was increasingly enraged by portrayals of his fellow Italian-Americans. He wanted a provision that would permit offended ethnic groups to sue for damages, but the constitutional convention wouldn’t go that far.
        I would’ve called Arrigo directly, but he died a few years back in mysterious circumstances (OK, I made up that part about his death being mysterious, but it’s mysterious to me because I couldn’t find out on deadline how he died).
        “Our goal was not to create something enforceable,” Clark Netsch told me. “All we wanted was a statement of principal so that the State of Illinois could be on record as saying that it literally ‘condemns’ offensive portrayals and stereotypes. But that’s all.”
        I did a little digging (don’t worry, I didn’t wear out any shoes) and found that Section 20 has only been tested once before. In that one precedent, a University of Illinois architecture student named William Irving bought something at a Musicland store in Peoria but returned the next day seeking his money back. The clerk, apparently not satisfied with Irving’s reason for not merely accepting an exchange, wrote on the receipt, “Arrogant ni--er refused exchange—says he doesn’t like products.” (Wait a minute. That sounds like an episode of “The Sopranos.”)
        Irving sued under Section 20—and got whacked worse than Jackie Jr. in this year’s season finale. “Section 20 is a clear expression of the public policy in this state,” the appellate court ruled. “But to impose as law certain ideals, however honorable, might create too great a burden for an imperfect society.” (In other words, there are too many freakin’ lawsuits already!)
        Win or lose, AIDA has again focussed negative attention on “The Sopranos,” which has been fitted for cement shoes all year.
        Wherever Italian-Americans have any pull at all, the show has encountered more hassles than a black driver on the New Jersey Turnpike. Just this week, the Denver House of Blues canceled a long-scheduled singing gig for Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior on the show, after Italian-Americans complained.
        And in December, officials in New Jersey’s Essex County barred the show from filming on county-owned parkland because the show likens Italian-Americans to mobsters and perpetuates “harmful stereotypes.”
        Here in New York, one must wonder how bad those stereotypes can be, considering our own mob-busting Italian-American mayor, Rudy Giuliani, is an open admirer of the show. In fact, when Robert Iler, the kid who plays Tony Soprano’s son, brought shame and dishonor on his family by getting himself arrested for allegedly robbing another kid, Giuliani actually suppressed that vein in his head that starts bulging whenever a crime is committed, urging everyone to wait until all the facts came out before making a judgement.
        It is the first time on record that the words “wait” and “judgement” were uttered by the mayor in the same sentence.
        Of course, most Americans have already made their judgement about “The Sopranos”—and while there’s no evidence that people are suddenly turning anti-Italian, there is evidence that the show is defamatory in one important way.
        A study by Farleigh Dickinson University—in Teaneck, N.J.—revealed that people who watch “The Sopranos” are more likely to think of New Jersey as having “more crime, dishonest politicians, and pollution than other states, and that it has higher taxes and is a worse place to live than other states.” (Then again, who knows? I think those things, and I don’t even watch the show.)
        Is America’s negative opinion of New Jersey all Tony Soprano’s fault? Not likely. More crime? According to the FBI, New Jersey’s principal city, Newark, has twice as much crime, per capita, as neighboring New York and three times the crime of San Jose, Calif. It even has 25 percent more crime than Los Angeles.
        Dishonest politicians? One of the state’s two U.S. senators is under investigation, and the acting governor didn’t run because the skeletons in his closet started rattling.

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        Pollution? The so-called Garden State—which occupies a mere 8,722 square miles—is home to 129 EPA Superfund sites (or one toxic dump for every 68 square miles). Nearby New York state—54,471 square miles—has a mere 102, for a rate of one for every 504 square miles. Wanna pick on someone New Jersey’s own size? New Hampshire (9,351 square miles) has 18 Superfund sites (one for every 519 square miles) and Vermont (9,615 square miles) has a mere 10 (do your own math—it’s easy).
        Higher taxes? New Jersey’s 6 percent state sales tax is 2.3 percentage points higher than the national average. And the state’s property taxes are “No. 1 or No. 2” according to Don Linky at the Public Affairs Research Institute of New Jersey.
        Worse place to live? A group called Towns and Villages (“Looking for America’s most livable small towns”) ranked 90 small towns and found only one in New Jersey—Lambertville—that was a nice place to live.
        That’s funny. Lambertville is nowhere near North Caldwell, the town where Tony Soprano supposedly lives. Hmmm...
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Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and author of the soon-to-be-out-of-print classic “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House). His Web site is at www.gersh.tv
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