“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.”
What’s in a name? ‘Lèse-Majesté’ is an attractive name. It’s French, derived from the latin laesa majestas, which Black’s Law Dictionary (5th Edition) defines as ‘injured majesty’; this term covers “any offense against the king’s person or dignity.” It can be a synonym for high treason.
The concept is a holdover from an era when (to paraphrase Mel Brooks) it was very good indeed to be the king: when insulting the head of state was a species of blasphemy and it therefore made little difference, legally, whether you tried to shoot the king dead or simply told him to “get lost, you prat.” “Get lost you prat” – or its french equivalent – was the very statement, by the way, that brought about the last prosecution in France (in 2008) for insulting the head of state.
Wikipedia tells us that you can still be jailed for Lèse-Majesté in Jordan and shot for it in North Korea (based on a report, at least, that an official was executed there for a list of crimes that included falling asleep at a state-sponsored pep rally). Earlier this month Thailand’s Bangkok Post wrote another chapter in this old, sad story under the headline “Toilet Scribbler Jailed Another 18 Months for Lèse-Majesté.”
But as of 2013, according to the Guardian, the law had been repealed in France, the country where the term came from. Arguably, you can’t be prosecuted for it in any of the nations subject to the European Court of Human Rights, which has ruled that such a law violated the ‘right to freedom of expression’.
And you won’t find it on the books in New York, either. We’re covered by the First Amendment to the US Constitution (made applicable to the states, including New York, by the 14th Amendment). The First Amendment prohibits any law
abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
In short, not only is there no statute in New York that prohibits ‘offending the dignity of a sovereign’ or ‘offending the state’; constitutionally, there couldn’t be.
So, why are we talking about Lèse-Majesté? Because every once in a while someone here tries to enforce it! Not by that name, of course. You’ll find it lurking, though, beneath the surface of some recent prosecutions for ‘obstruction of governmental administration’, ‘disorderly conduct’, ‘resisting arrest’ and ‘aggravated harassment’.
A case in point: Thabo Sefolosha, a professional basketball player, was tried on those charges last week (minus the aggravated harassment) – and acquitted (we’re linking to a couple of articles, one posted by ESPN, the other by the Guardian). Per the Guardian, “[t]he prosecution alleged that the 6ft 7in Sefolosha was disrespectful to law enforcement and that he gestured in a threatening manner towards the police.” According to Sefolosha himself (as reported by ESPN), his original mistake may have been to call a 5ft 7in police officer ‘a midget’.
The New York Post reports, in a follow-up, that Mr. Sefolosha, who emerged from his encounter with law enforcement not just with criminal charges but with a broken leg, intends to sue.