We’re revisiting the subject of ‘lese majeste’. That’s the crime, you may recall, of insulting people who can make you wish you hadn’t. Since our prior entries (here and here), there have been a number of developments, both abroad and in the US.
The military government of Thailand has brought more prosecutions, and a couple of them show the potential scope of the offense:
(1) It’s not just what you say yourself. Providing a forum for lese majeste – however humble a forum – can put you in the jackpot. One woman, according to Reuters.com, recently made the mistake of
post[ing] on her Facebook account an article by . . . . a Thai-British academic and vocal opponent of the Thai monarchy who fled Thailand after he was charged with lese majeste in 2009.
She’s going to prison for 1-1/2 years. (That sentence was light, by the way; it could have been 15).
(2) When it comes to insulting the powerful, don’t think you can get away with it just because they’re dead. CBS reported last month that an elderly scholar had been prosecuted for suggesting that one Naresuan, Lord of the Ayutthaya Kingdom and Overlord of Lan Na, (who died in 1605), might not have fought a duel while riding on an elephant. The charges were dropped, in the end, after a direct appeal to the current king.
Thailand is a military dictatorship, and it’s not surprising that such a government might use such a law to attack anything remotely resembling political opposition. Yet this law, or something very like it, persists even in places that are ostensibly democracies. France, as we noted in our original 2015 entry, punished lese majeste until 2013. Germany only recently repealed its version. The crime was on the books until last month.
And, according to an article in the Guardian, lese majeste is still a crime in the Netherlands: the grand prize is five years’ imprisonment. There’s been talk in the Netherlands of going the way of Germany and repealing the law, but there’s also been resistance to the idea. The Netherlands is a democracy, but the state takes the form of a constitutional monarchy. The monarch is the head of state, and apparently shouldn’t have to listen to taunts and insults – or even demean himself by complaining. The Guardian quotes a Dutch politician as saying, with respect to a proposed amendment of the law that would require the king himself to make a formal complaint, “. . . . The king should not have to go to the police station on his bike . . . .”
In the US, we have the First Amendment to the Constitution, and there hasn’t been a law expressly punishing insults to public officials since the ‘sedition’ part of the Alien and Sedition Acts expired in 1800.
In theoretical terms, though, a hypothetical question may have been raised on February 5th of this year. On that date, as reported in many news outlets, including the New York Times, the Democratic response to the President’s State of the Union address was characterized as ‘treasonous’.
The word ‘treasonous’ was passed off as a joke and, even if it weren’t a joke, the Constitution (in Article III, Section 3) says that treason “shall consist only in levying war against [the United States], or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Thanks to that word ‘only’, the conduct complained of probably can’t be treason, since the behavior consisted of giving off ‘bad energy’ and being ‘like death’ even in the face of ‘really positive news’.
Furthermore, projecting ‘bad energy’ hasn’t been considered criminal since the 1690s and then only in places like Salem, Massachusetts. Because, however, the representatives’ conduct was intended as a protest, it might in other places – places not covered by a First Amendment – be considered ‘lese majeste’. For instance, Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which embodies Thailand’s law forbidding lese majeste, punishes anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the King . . . .”