Limiting Free Speech (18): Lèse Majesté

Lèse majesté (a French expression but originally from a Latin expression meaning “injury to the Majesty”) is a legal rule making it a crime to say or write things that offend or insult a king or queen, or violate his or her dignity.

Fortunately, this kind of limitation of freedom of speech has become extremely rare. Most countries have done away with the archaic institution of the monarchy and hence also their lèse majesté rules. Or they have relegated their monarchies to the domain of symbolism and celebrity. Absolute monarchies or monarchical dictatorships are the exception nowadays. Oppression has become a distinctly “republican” affair. (Some of the remaining absolute monarchies are Brunei, Qatar, the southern African Kingdom of Swaziland, and Saudi Arabia).

Most of the monarchies that continue to exist have no strict practice of limiting free speech on the grounds of lèse majesté. They may have some legal rules, but they aren’t applied rigorously. So, on a global level, it’s difficult to claim that lèse majesté is a big problem for freedom of speech. However, some monarchies do impose the rule and thereby violate the right to freedom of speech to a large extent. I’m thinking of course of Thailand. The law there states:

The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action. Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen or the Heir-apparent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years. (source)

Moreover, a precise definition of defamation of or insult to the king is lacking, making the net very tight. As a result, the law has shown itself very useful for political vendettas. There have been numerous cases of censorship, self-censorship and imprisonment, often as a consequences of rather ridiculous faits divers:

Frenchman Lech Tomacz Kisielwicz refused to switch off a reading light on a Thai Airways flight he shared with two Thai princesses and was jailed under lèse majesté for two weeks after his flight landed in Bangkok. He was acquitted after apologizing to the King. (source)

But the consequences of many cases have been much more serious than the causes. Writers and academics have been jailed, thousands of internet sites are blocked, books and magazines such as The Economist have been banned etc. It’s not impossible that the site you’re reading now will suffer the same fate.

Thai law goes well beyond protection of the royal family. It has been used and abused to protect and justify an entire ruling elite, an autocratic and conservative social system, and even military coups.

Other monarchies are much more tolerant. It’s worth mentioning that some non-monarchies also have rules prohibiting insults to heads of states. In October 2006, a Polish man was arrested in Warsaw after expressing his dissatisfaction with the president and prime minister by farting loudly (see here).

Lèse majesté laws in one form or another, especially in countries where the beneficiaries of such protection are relatively powerful, is undemocratic. They can stifle large areas of political journalism and debate, and make it impossible to expose official wrongdoing and corruption.

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2 thoughts on “Limiting Free Speech (18): Lèse Majesté”

  1. Hi Hal, in the U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment regulates freedom of speech and doesn’t provide any exceptions or limits to this right. Limitations are up to the interpretation of the Constitution by the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

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