What Is Lèse-Majesté?

Lèse-majesté may be treated as a major crime with potentially harsh penalties.

Hands holding up a crown

Darren Robb / Getty

Lèse-majesté is an offense committed against the dignity of a monarch, a ruling head of state, or the state itself. Lèse-majesté or lese majesty comes from the Latin phrase laesa majestas, which means "injured majesty." The English name for the crime is taken from Middle French, where it means "a crime against The Crown." In countries where it remains a punishable offense, lèse-majesté is very serious, given that the sovereigns are the image of God on earth, and that all power comes from God.

Key Takeaways: Lèse Majesté

  • Lèse-majesté is the crime of insulting the dignity of a monarch, a ruling head of state, or the state itself.
  • The concept of lèse-majesté grew from the period of absolute monarchies in Europe during which monarchs claimed their power was bestowed on them by God.
  • In countries where it remains a punishable offense, lèse-majesté is considered a very serious crime with potentially harsh penalties.



History and Justifications 

Lèse-majesté was first classified as a criminal offense during the Late Empire period (200 CE to 500 CE) of ancient Rome when the emperors eliminated the democratic trappings of their predecessors and began to equate themselves with the empire. Although legally considered the “first citizen,” they could never become true sovereigns because the republic was never officially abolished. Instead, emperors were deified as deities while reigning. Deified emperors enjoyed the same legal protection as had been accorded to the divinities of the Roman imperial theocratic cult. 

During the early medieval period, the idea of offenses against Majesty as offenses against the crown predominated in the European kingdoms. In feudal Europe, some crimes were classified as lèse-majesté even if they were not intentionally directed against the crown. For example, counterfeiting was considered lèse-majesté because coins bore the monarch's effigy or coat of arms.

This period was marked by absolutism—a political system in which a single sovereign ruler or leader holds complete and unrestrained power over a country. Typically vested in a monarch or dictator, the power of an absolutist government may not be challenged or limited by any other internal agency, whether legislative, judicial, religious, or electoral. Absolutist monarchs claimed their power was bestowed on them by God, according to the theory of the “Divine Right of Kings.” As such, any act disrespecting the monarch was seen as an act disrespecting God.

With the disappearance of absolute monarchies in Europe, lèse-majesté came to be viewed as less of a crime. However, certain malicious acts that would have once been classified as the crime of lèse-majesté could still be prosecuted as treason. Future republics that emerged as world powers generally still classified as a crime any offense against the highest representatives of the state. These laws are still applied as well in monarchies outside of Europe, notably in modern Thailand and Cambodia.

Examples in History

While it remains a harshly punishable crime in a few countries, the long history of lèse-majesté has been marked by examples of its decriminalization, if not outright abolishment.

Japan

Lèse-majesté in Japan was a special crime of defamation concerning the Emperor and imperial family that was in effect between 1877 and 1947 when it was abolished during the United States-led occupation after World War II. Until the start of the war, the number of people accused of Lèse-majesté averaged less than ten per year, but during World War II, the number increased dramatically, and from 1941 to 1943, the annual average number rose to nearly 160.

The last person to be convicted of the crime was a factory worker and member of the Japanese Communist Party. During a 1946 protest against food shortages in front of the Imperial Palace, during which the protesters demanded entry into the palace kitchens which were said to be stocked with staple foods, the worker carried a placard reading, on one side, "Imperial Edict: The Emperor system has been preserved. I, the Emperor, have eaten to my heart's content, but you, my subjects, should starve to death! Signed, (Imperial Seal).” The other side demanded that the Emperor give a public accounting of the food shortages. The protestor was arrested and charged with impairing the dignity of the Emperor. The Allied occupation authorities intervened and had the charges reduced to libel. The protestor was convicted and sentenced to eight months in prison but was pardoned immediately under an Imperial amnesty commemorating the new post-war Constitution.

Norway

The Norwegian Penal Code of 1902 provided penalties for lèse-majesté.  According to article 103, the prosecution had to be ordered or accepted by the king. Article 101 stated: "If any defamation is exercised against the King or the Regent, the guilty is punished with a fine or up to five years of prison."

Often related to political conflicts, accusations of lèse-majesté were frequent in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and many cases resulted in execution. Virtually no legal actions were taken after 1905. The last to be charged for lèse-majesté was a man who threw a tomato at Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom during her state visit in 1981. As of 2015, lèse-majesté is no longer a criminal offense in Norway.

United Kingdom

Treason!!! John Bull farts at a poster of King George III, as an outraged William Pitt the Younger chastises him.
Treason!!! John Bull farts at a poster of King George III, as an outraged William Pitt the Younger chastises him.

Richard Newton / The US Library of Congress / Public Domain

The Treason Felony Act of 1848 makes it an offense to advocate for the abolition of the monarchy. Such advocacy is punishable by up to life imprisonment under the Act. Though still in the statute book, the law is no longer enforced.

Section 51 of the Scottish Criminal Justice and Licensing Act of 2010 abolished the common law criminal offenses of sedition and "leasing-making" in Scottish law. The latter offense was considered an offense of lèse-majesté or making remarks critical of the monarch of the United Kingdom. The final prosecution for this offense occurred in 1715.

Examples in the Present Day

Laws against lèse-majesté are still applied, often harshly, in a few monarchies outside of Europe.

Thailand

Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code says anyone who "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent" will be punished with a jail term between three and 15 years. This law has remained virtually unchanged since the creation of the country's first criminal code in 1908, although the penalty was toughened in 1976. The law has also been enshrined in all of Thailand's recent constitutions, which state: "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. 

However, there is no definition of what constitutes an “insult to the monarchy,” and critics say this gives the authorities leeway to interpret the law in a very broad way. The Thai Constitution also states that “No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.”

The law has been increasingly enforced ever since the Thai military took power in 2014 in a coup, and many people have been punished with harsh jail sentences. Critics say the military-backed government uses the law to clamp down on free speech, and the United Nations has repeatedly called on Thailand to amend it. But the government says the law is necessary to protect the monarchy, which is widely revered in Thailand.

Thailand has by far applied its lèse-majesté laws most aggressively, and the number of convictions has been on the rise. Before 2020, the last cases under the legislation were prosecuted in 2018. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha attributed the drop to the mercy of the monarchy. However, cases rose in parallel with protests that began in July 2020, calling for Prayuth’s resignation, revision of the constitution, and reform of the monarchy. The protest leaders have been charged with lèse-majesté, and the Thai government is now prosecuting social media outlets for not curtailing posts critical of the royal family.

Complaints of lèse-majesté can be filed by anyone, against anyone, and they must always be formally investigated by the police. Those arrested can be denied bail and some are held for long periods in pre-trial detention, the UN has said. Correspondents say trials are routinely held in closed session, often in military courts where defendants' rights are limited. The minimum sentence of three years makes it impossible for judges to reduce jail time for civilians who must work to support their families. 

Individuals charged or investigated under Thailand’s lèse-majesté legislation have included a BBC correspondent, a US ambassador, a celebrity fortune-teller as well as activists and ordinary citizens sharing posts on social media.

Cambodia

In February 2018, Cambodia’s parliament unanimously adopted a lèse-majesté law that forbids insulting the monarchy. “An insult is expressed in words, gestures, writing, painting or objects that affect personal dignity,” Pen Panha, head of the parliamentary Commission on Legislation and Justice, told parliament.

Rights groups expressed concern the legislation, long in effect in neighboring Thailand, could be used against critics of the government. Punishments range from prison terms and fines unaffordable for most Cambodians. Those found guilty can face between one and five years in prison and a fine of between $500 and $2,500.

The first application of the new legislation occurred when a teacher was arrested for his comments on Facebook accusing the king of the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP was the sole challenger to the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and, months later, a CNRP deputy leader was likewise accused of lèse-majesté.

Belarus

On January 31, 2022, a woman in Belarus has been handed an 18-month prison sentence for "insulting" the country’s authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and other authorities after pictures mocking the officials were found on her phone.

The probe against the woman was launched after police searched her home and found photoshopped pictures on her mobile phone of Lukashenka and other government representatives wearing Nazi uniforms. 

Also on January 31, a court in the western Belarusian city of Brest sentenced a local resident to two years in prison after finding him guilty of insulting the governor of the Hrodna region, Uladzimer Karanik, in his online posts. They were two of the many Belarusians who faced trials linked to mass protests against Lukashenka following a controversial presidential election in August 2020 in which Lukashenka claimed reelection, even though many Belarusians and Western nations say the vote was rigged.

Sources

  • “Lèse Majesté: Watching what you say (and type) abroad.” U.S. Department of State, https://www.osac.gov/Content/Report/e48a9599-9258-483c-9cd4-169f9c8946f5.
  • Streckfuss, David. “Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté.” Routledge; August 13, 2010; ISBN: ‎0415414253. 
  • Chan Thul, Prak. “Cambodian government criminalizes insult of monarchy.” Reuters, February 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cambodia-politics-idUSKBN1FM219.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Lèse-Majesté?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 9, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-lese-majeste-7069016. Longley, Robert. (2023, January 9). What Is Lèse-Majesté? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-lese-majeste-7069016 Longley, Robert. "What Is Lèse-Majesté?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-lese-majeste-7069016 (accessed February 2, 2023).