The First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to free expression without fear of prosecution, stating, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …”
This free speech tradition protects even offensive or distasteful commentary about elected politicians and government leaders — let alone unelected monarchs. While certain limitations apply to speech posing an imminent danger, Americans have a long legal tradition of cases defending the right to engage in political dissent and criticism of authority figures.
But not every nation has the freedom we do.
An appeals court in Thailand last week handed down an unprecedented 50-year prison sentence to a man convicted of violating the country’s strict laws that criminalize insulting the country’s centuries-old monarchy, according to a legal advocacy group statement reported by CNN.
Mongkol Thirakhot, an online vendor and political activist, was initially given a 28-year sentence in 2023 on charges related to social media posts considered offensive toward the king. However, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, an appeals court found him guilty on Thursday of about a dozen additional violations of the law and added 22 years to his sentence.
Thailand: Man jailed for 50 years for defaming monarchy https://t.co/cWgbRIkeH7
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) January 18, 2024
Thailand has some of the harshest laws in the world against insulting its royal family. Each offense under the lese-majeste provision in Thailand’s criminal code can bring up to 15 years in prison. As a result, sentences for those convicted can stretch on for decades.
The content of Thirakhot’s allegedly illegal Facebook posts is unclear.
Theeraphon Khoomsap, Thirakhot’s lawyer, told Reuters that Thirakhot denies the charges and plans to appeal his sentence to the Supreme Court.
Thirakhot’s case brings to mind the trial of John Peter Zenger in 1733, a landmark case that helped cement a tradition of open dissent that was later enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Zenger, a German immigrant who lived in New York City, had printed a series of controversial newspaper articles in his New York Weekly Journal accusing the colony’s Royal Governor William Cosby of corruption and election rigging. Such public criticism of imperial leaders constituted “libel” under prevailing British law — a serious felony offense punishable by heavy fines, public shaming, and even imprisonment.
Yet after a rousing defense from then-renowned Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton that printing truthful criticism served liberty, Zenger’s jury openly defied the court’s directives by delivering a stunning not-guilty verdict after barely 10 minutes of deliberation.
“It is not the cause of one poor printer,” Hamilton proclaimed in his closing statement, “but the cause of liberty.”
During a week when we found out that the U.S. government asked banks for the records of those who disagree with the current government, according to Fox News, Zenger’s victory and Thirakhot’s loss of their respective cases are poignant reminders of how far we have come as a nation and how easily we could slide into autocratic control.
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.