lese majesty or leze majesty (both: lēz măˈjĭstē) [key] [Fr. lèse majesté, Lat. laesae maiestatis (crimen) = (crime of) violating majesty], offense against the dignity of the sovereign of a state or of a state itself. The offense as such first appeared in Rome, though not defined with great exactness. Lese majesty seems to have been considered originally as a violation of the fundamental laws of the Roman state, a crime against the Roman people. When the Roman Empire replaced the republic, the crime became an offense against the person of the emperor, but it still included cases that were more generally designated treason; all attempts to upset the state, as well as actions or words derogatory to, or dangerous to, the state were interpreted as offenses against the sovereign's person. This personality cult became the main element in the term lese majesty, which in time was applied especially to physical or verbal attack on the sovereign. The legislation against the crime passed into Germanic law, and feudal law heightened the personalization of the concept because of the personal nature of the feudal bond. In most modern states the specific crime of lese majesty is confounded with, and included in, the crime of treason. The decline of absolute monarchies hastened the disappearance of the crime, although it remained in German law until the fall of the German monarchy in 1918. While in some modern countries verbal or written attacks on the form of government, the head of the state, or public officials are made crimes analogous to lese majesty, in countries such as the United States that recognize the right to freedom of speech, the concept of lese majesty is severely restricted.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.