Contempt for contempt

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Contempt for contempt

An insult is an incivility that undermines the self-respect of another. The Constitutional Court recently overruled an appeal against punishment for an act of contempt. A 40-year-old man had claimed that a 1 million won ($946) fine for his outburst of swearing at a policeman was excessive.

The Constitutional Court determined that his fine for criminal contempt, an act defying the law and customary public decorum, did not breach the constitutional principle banning a disproportionate punishment for a crime.

It said, “A person with reasonable sense and normal awareness of the law would know what actions are not permitted in this society.”

It confirmed that insulting and humiliating another person through actions and use of language beyond a socially acceptable level should be punished. From the victim’s viewpoint, the verdict is indisputable. Such punitive regulations, in fact, should be bolstered due to the proliferation of abuse on the Internet and mobile phones.

Under criminal law, a person who insults another without any particular reason faces a potential prison sentence of less than a year or a fine of less than 2 million won.

The phrase “without any particular reason” is important. The Supreme Court recognizes the crime of contempt and has set a legal precedent about an expression of abstract judgment or contemptuous emotion that can undermine a person’s social standing.

The court coined the concept of a “collective insult” during the first trial of lawmaker Kang Yong-seok in April. Kang insulted the profession of newscasters and announcers by telling female college students aspiring to become TV announcers that they must be prepared to “go all the way.” Lower courts have also been expanding the legal interpretation of offenses known as contempt or as insults.

The Constitutional Court rightfully pointed out that acts of insult can easily spread in modern society due to the development of media and information technology, and that the damage is often too grave for an individual to recover from. Young couples swear at senior citizens over vacant seats in the subway. With a cell phone in hand, one can humiliate a stranger almost anonymously. Social changes call for greater punishments against acts of humiliation and insult. The act of contempt concerns our common sense and conscience. Before debating the punishment, we should all try to work toward a society of decorum and decency.
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