Can a presidential candidate sue a newspaper for calling him a drunk? No, this isn’t about a current case in our hyper-partisan environment in which the media takes sides. Nor is it about Donald Trump calling his political opponents crooked, liar, or loser. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt bringing a libel suit in 1912 against a small, local Midwest newspaper for calling him a drunk.
There were widespread rumors during Roosevelt’s presidency (1907-1909) of his drinking to excess and cursing. These rumors followed him during his failed 1912 campaign to regain the presidency as a Bull Moose third party candidate. So when a weekly newspaper published in Marquette, Michigan, called the Iron Ore, published an editorial accusing Teddy Roosevelt of getting drunk and cursing, the candidate filed suit.
A trial commenced in the small courthouse that years later became the set for the award winning film Anatomy of a Murder. Roosevelt himself was the star witness, categorically denying he had ever been drunk. He acknowledged sipping an occasional mint julep and some “light wine,” but never brandy, rum, scotch, bourbon or other hard liquor except when prescribed by a doctor with a teaspoon of milk.
A parade of character witnesses testified to his sobriety and temperance, as well as to his eschewal of foul language. The defendant also had numerous witnesses, but none had actually ever seen Teddy Roosevelt drunk. They just heard it from others. Rumors abounded, but eyewitness testimony was absent. So the newspaper had a weak factual case.
But didn’t the law – the First Amendment – protect the newspaper’s right to be wrong about a public figure as long as it was a mistake and was not malicious? Hard as this may be to believe, there was, in practice, no First Amendment back in 1912 – a few years before Louis Brandeis discovered its neglected words and brought them to life.
The Teddy Roosevelt suit was brought during the dark ages of the First Amendment, when public figures were free to sue newspapers. The basic issue at trial was whether the newspaper’s accusation of drunkenness was true or false.