Brazilian Student Faces US$15,700 Fine for “Racist” Meme

Scholars of constitutional law … will not find lessons on institutional architecture in the new text [of the Brazilian constitution]. Instead, they will find plenty of anecdotal material. What constitution in the world formalizes negligence, ensures immortality of the elderly, nationalizes disease, and, at the same time, gives the 16-year-old the right to vote and criminal immunity? Our claim to originality created a new constitutional theory: the “archaic progressivism.”
~Roberto Campos, 1988.

Local Brazilian news sources report that Santa Catarina Federal University student Igor Westphal could be ordered to pay over R$50,000 (US$15,700) for “collective moral damage” triggered by a Facebook post.

According to the publication, the student published an image of a black man on his knees offering bananas to a black woman. The Federal Public Ministry filed the civil lawsuit primarily against the student, but prosecutors are also naming UFSC as a defendant for having allowed the student to publish the image on its institutional social-media page.

The apparently racist image, shared on Facebook, that now has a Brazilian student up for prosecution. (Geledés Archive)
The apparently racist image, shared on Facebook, that now has a Brazilian student up for prosecution. (Geledés Archive)

The image had been originally published on a Nigerian comic website. According to critics of the federal prosecutors behind the lawsuit, the original intent of the cartoon was to criticize the country’s poverty.

After the student’s post on Facebook, a representative of the Santa Catarina State Council of Populations Of African Descent (Cepa) urged the Federal Public Ministry to institute a civil investigation into the case. During the probe, prosecutors found the student had published other social-media posts that appeared to contain racist content.

Prosecutor Maurício Pressutto, the author of the civil action, wants the student to be sentenced by the Federal Court to pay compensation, R$50,000 or more. He also requests that the court mandate UFSC to publish the final sentence on its official website as well as in other national news publications “at least twice.”

According to the Brazilian Constitution, ratified in 1988, “the practice of racism is a criminal offense.” In spite of the wording, however, a definition of racism hasn’t been established by lawmakers who drafted the text.

In the past, the Institute of Racial and Environmental Advocacy was heavily criticized for attempting to ban literary works by the Brazilian author Monteiro Lobato over their “racist content.”

The Brazilian NGO Safernet Brazil claims that, in 2013 alone, 78,690 anonymous accusations of racism were registered nationwide — even though the Brazilian Constitution does not protect the citizen’s freedom to exercise anonymity.

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