Lese majeste, more properly lèse majesté, is an insult or offense to a head of state. The term has traditionally been used in reference to monarchs in particular, although people can potentially be prosecuted for lese majeste if they insult a government or national leader. At one time, numerous nations had laws on the books which provided severe punishments for people who offended the monarch, although the decline of monarchies has led to a corresponding decline in such laws.
The concept of lese majeste as a legal term arose during the Roman Empire, when it was first codified as an action with distinct legal repercussions. Many monarchies adopted the concept, subjecting citizens to penalties if they insulted the monarch in some way. Lese majeste can range from being disrespectful to the monarch in his or her presence to making defamatory statements in public. It could loosely be defined as a lack of proper respect for the monarch. Monarchs are viewed as figures of respect because in addition to being heads of state, they are also part of a nation's history and heritage.
Thailand is infamous for its very tough lese majeste laws. The ruler of Thailand is treated with intense reverence, and people can be imprisoned for between three and 15 years for acts which can range from failing to rise for the royal anthem to drawing political cartoons of the king. Critics of Thailand's harsh laws have argued that these laws often penalize people who engage in free speech or valid criticisms of the Thai government.
Several other nations with existing monarchies still have lese majeste laws, although these laws are not always prosecuted. Law enforcement officials tend to be more concerned with active treason. If someone wants to draw a political cartoon of the Queen of England with offensive content, for example, he or she is unlikely to be punished, but if someone designs a plot against the monarch, he or she will face legal penalties. Referring to a head of state with inflammatory words in a newspaper might be prosecuted as defamation, but not lese majeste.
This term is also sometimes used to describe irreverence and disrespect in general, such as tart comments to a supervisor, or a failure to respect someone who is being pompous or arrogant. In this sense, "lese majeste" is a more lighthearted term which is often used to describe a situation in which someone is being too overbearing, and someone else has decided to make light of the situation. A parent might, for example, accuse a child of lese majeste when he or she makes an irreverent reply to a piece of well-meant advice.