If there is one thing that unites Americans, it is the ability to insult their political leaders in the public forum. This cherished tradition certainly reared its head during the election-cycle. Rallying around these insults, people from across the political spectrum used these vitriolic messages to push for their preferred candidate. For better or worse, this is one of the foundations of the American republic: the freedom to criticize and insult our political leaders is a fundamental right that makes America relatively unique. In much of the world, political leaders are protected from insult under what are known as lese majeste (Injured Majesty) laws. These laws aim to preserve the dignity of the head of state or state itself. Many nations even those who would be perceived as open and free, including Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy, and some of the Nordic states — have laws that criminalize criticizing the state or its leaders.
The presence of lese majeste laws in these western counties is concerning, especially given the resurgence of nationalism and xenophobic behaviors that has resulted after increased increased immigration by refugees and asylees entering Europe from conflict zones. These conservative behaviors are alarming in their own right, and often indicative of those who would be more comfortable with toleration governments. As recently as April 2016 these laws caused a diplomatic scuffle between Germany and Turkey. When a German comedian insulted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on television, Erdoğan insisted German Chancellor Angela Merkel allow prosecution under Germany’s lese majeste laws. Germany’s deformation laws allow for the prosecution of individuals who insult foreign heads of states. Ultimately, he was not charged with any crime in Germany. Lese majeste laws, as they exist today, present a legitimate way for those with power to silence opposition and prevent the assimilation of minority groups into the public discourse. When Turkey lodged a protest with the German government with the support of the existing lese majeste law, it opened up the avenue for the law to be used as a bartering chip for further diplomatic issues. Having a legal avenue to pressure foreign policy places the challenged nation in a potentially dangerous position – if the power dynamics in a particular situation permit, it allows for a foreign power to place undue pressure on foreign citizen with relative ease.
With the recent passing of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej this month, the nation’s lese majeste laws should be highlighted: they have been part of all of Thailand’s constitutions since the early 1900s and are among the strictest in the world. Even the United States Ambassador to Thailand, Glyn T. Davies, has been investigated by Thai authorities for a violation of the offense. Amnesty International describes Thailand’s treatment of the crime as a serious offense punishable by up to fifteen years in prison, including secret trials, and even deaths within detention. As police fear that they may also be held as accomplices to these “crimes,” they are obligated to act on any reports of violations, further limiting free speech.
While it is relatively rare for anyone of be prosecuted under lese majesty laws, their mere existence is worrisome as it opens a foothold to erode the rights of a people to actively engage in a critical function of democracy. No legitimate use for these laws exists – they only serve a political purpose to protect the power of leadership. The laws create a special subsection of law for political elites, a very subjective area that tries to define defamation outside the realm of the general libel and slander laws. Lese majeste laws, even in their relative hibernated state, represent a real danger to any people who wish to ensure that they have the right to freedom of political expression.