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Has there ever been anywhere a law criminalizing certain thoughts? The closest I can find is The Treason Act 1351, which is still in force in Britain today. This criminalizes compassing or imagining the death of the King. The statute goes on, however, to say that it is necessary that the offender be 'attainted of open Deed', so this is not a pure thought crime.

I am not counting the laws of religious bodies, just the laws of states.

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  • Separation of church and state is a recent thing. Heresy and similar violations of religious law have been violation of the laws of the state for most of history and remain so in many countries today. For example, in Saudi Arabia it is punishable by death for a Muslim to convert to Christianity, and people are routinely executed for that offense. Would this be a law of a religious body in your view?
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 15:22
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    Thanks for this comment. Heresy and apostasy have always required an action, though -- mere thought has never been enough to constitute a breach of the law in that respect. Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 11:21
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    Depends upon what you consider "an action", nobody can prosecute a crime that doesn't have any visible outside manifestation. But, people have absolutely been executed in the Islamic world for writing in a private diary that they don't believe in God or that they are Christians, with no other evidence.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 16:38
  • Thanks for the comment, ohwilleke, but a crime that doesn't have any visible outside manifestation can be prosecuted if the agent confesses. Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 18:25
  • Then the confession is itself a the visual outside manifestation of the crime. In the same way, someone born a Muslim who when asked if he is a Christian says "yes" can be executed for that.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 19:12

2 Answers 2

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There are certainly situations where your thoughts turn something into a crime or not. Here's an interesting one (found when I tried to figure out what an "attempted crime" is):

Let's say I give up my business and sell a lot of office equipment very cheap. You think that because it is cheap, it must be stolen, and you decide to buy some of my what you think are stolen goods. You are now guilty of an attempt to buy stolen goods (even though the goods are not stolen at all, that's why it's only attempted). Someone else who buys some items because they are cheap is not guilty. So your thoughts turn this into a crime (obviously close to impossible to prove unless you tell someone about your thoughts).

Whether you want to call this a thought crime or not is up to you.

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    I think that 'thought crime' refers to when a pure thought is a crime, not to when a mixture of thought and physical action makes a crime, even though in that case the crime wouldn't have occurred without the thought. Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 11:41
  • I don't think this really matches. The OP appears to be looking for an offense that consists solely in thoughts without any requirement that those thoughts lead to, or occur at the same time as, any particular actions. A pure "thought crime" could consist of thinking poorly about the government in power, without actually saying anything with respect to this, or taking (or omitting to take) any action as a result of this. In other words, maybe someone just hates the King, but doesn't say so, pick up a weapon in rebellion, or otherwise do anything to indicate that he is not a loyal subject. Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 15:20
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[uk]

The Treason Felony Act 1848 section 3 makes it a crime to "imagine, invent, devise, or intend to deprive or depose our Most Gracious Lady the Queen, from the style, honour, or royal name of the imperial crown of the United Kingdom". One found guilty of such an imagination is "liable to be transported beyond the seas for the term or his or her natural life", though "Reference to transportation for life to be construed as reference to imprisonment for life or any shorter term".

It is worth noting that the act has not been deployed in a prosecution since 1879, and in a legal challenge to this law Lord Steyn said: "The part of s3 of the 1848 Act which appears to criminalise the advocacy of republicanism is a relic of a bygone age, and does not fit into the fabric of our modern legal system. The idea that s3 could survive scrutiny under the Human Rights Act is unreal." However that case failled to change the Treason act, and the there is an effort to repeal the Human Rights Act, though that is not going so well.

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  • Thanks, User65535, but the Treason Felony Act 1848 s 3 goes on to say 'and such compassings, imaginations, inventions, devices, or intentions, or any of them, shall express, utter, or declare, by publishing any printing or writing or by any overt act or deed', so it's not clear that it is the compassing itself is the crime here. If it is, it is similar to the case I gave above of the Treason Act 1351. Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 18:29
  • It is terribly hard to read, but the way I interpret it is that if the thought is to intend to do any of those things then that thought would be illegal.
    – User65535
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 18:44

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