'Sopranos' Sparks Anger, Lawsuit

April 6, 2001 -- An Italian-American lawyers' group in Chicago is suing the makers of The Sopranos under an obscure "individual dignity" clause in the Illinois Constitution.

The lawyers contend the popular HBO series affronts the dignity of Italian-Americans by portraying them as criminals. The series depicts the world of Tony Soprano, a Mafia boss in northern New Jersey.

Almost all of the characters — including non-mobsters like Tony's psychiatrist — are Italian-American. The show portrays Italian-American culture and cuisine, with frequent references to delicacies like cappicola (pronounced on the show "gabagul").

The lawyers' group, the American Italian Defense Association (AIDA), filed suit today against HBO's owner, Time Warner Entertainment Co., saying the series violates Section 20 of the state constitution's Bill of Rights.

Enrico Mirabelli of the American Italian Defense Association told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America that the show implies that most Italian-Americans are mobsters.

"For most people who don't know Italians personally, they look at The Sopranos and they think most Italian families are like The Sopranos," said Mirabelli.

It's Good TV

Television critic David Bianculli of the New York Daily News said the only thing he finds offensive is "bad television." He said The Sopranos is a great example of "good TV."

"He [Mirabelli] is representing a group of 100 people or so that really do feel that it's a misrepresentation," said Bianculli, "but 9 million people watch the show, and a lot of them are Italian-Americans, at least a percentage of them. I'm Italian-American, I'm not offended by it."

Lacking in Virtue

Section 20, entitled "Individual Dignity," condemns "communications that portray criminality, depravity or lack of virtue" in a group of people by referring to their "religious, racial, ethnic, national or regional affiliation."

The suit charges the series' Italian-American characters, even the non-mobsters, "are lacking in civility, respectability or virtue" and that it suggests that criminality is a genetic trait in Italian-Americans.

The lawsuit seeks only a "declaratory judgment" from the court that the series violates Italian-Americans' dignity as defined in the state constitution. It does not seek damages or to have the show taken off the air.

In New York, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Cuomo, an Italian-American, also appears to have his eye on the show. New Yorkers who received calls from Cuomo's pollsters told The Associated Press that one question asked whether they thought The Sopranos gives a fair impression of Italian-Americans.