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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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Duration
30-60 minutes
Topic(s)
  • Constitution
  • Journalism
  • Politics
  • Supreme Court
Grade(s)
  • 7-12
  • College/University

THE CASE

You are a legal adviser to President Theodore Roosevelt. The (New York) World and other newspapers recently printed stories alleging that friends of the president made money off the U.S. government’s decision to purchase the Panama Canal. The stories claimed that these Americans had inside knowledge of Roosevelt’s plan to pursue a canal in Panama over other options and were able to profit from this information.

The stories did not provide hard evidence to back up these claims, and they didn’t prevent Roosevelt’s fellow Republican William Howard Taft from winning the recent presidential election. But the reports embarrassed the Republican Party and may have cost them some seats in Congress. As well, a congressman has introduced a resolution to formally investigate who profited from the canal purchase. Roosevelt says the news reports are false and are “blackening” the country’s reputation. He thinks the U.S. government should prosecute The World and The Indianapolis News for criminal libel, which involves knowingly publishing a false statement that causes damage to the public.

The newspapers argue that they should be protected by the First Amendment; they are doing their job as a watchdog looking out for government corruption and keeping the American people informed. They claim they only lacked hard evidence because of steps taken to erase all records of the company involved in the canal deal.

Should the president pursue criminal charges against the publishers who have accused him of corruption?

  1. Joseph Pulitzer Portrait
    ?

    Joseph Pulitzer owned The (New York) World. He worried about the potential consequences for freedom of press if Roosevelt's libel lawsuit succeeded.

    Newseum Collection

    No, the president should not prosecute the publishers.

    Even if the president does not agree with these criticisms, the publishers are protected by the First Amendment. The president can criticize the content of the stories without pressing criminal charges.

    “Mr. Pulitzer saw in this attempt a dangerous and deadly assault upon the liberty of the press — an attempt to control it by the colossal power of the Federal Government. He determined to make a fight against it, not on his personal account alone, but because of the great principle involved.”

    — De Lancey Nicoll, counsel for The World (“The Roosevelt Libel Case Against the New York World” pamphlet, 1911)
  2. Theodore Roosevelt Portrait
    ?

    Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt served as the 26th president of the United States (1901-09).

    Newseum Collection/William T. Fall Estate/Courtesy David and Ellen Conboy

    Yes, the president should prosecute the publishers.

    The president is only trying to stop damaging attacks, not silence the free press. By printing these rumors without proof to back them up, the newspapers may be misleading the public and are making the nation and its leaders look bad.

    “It is therefore a high national duty to bring to justice the villifier of the American people, this man who wantonly and wickedly and without one shadow of justice seeks to blacken the character of reputable private citizens and to convict the government of his own country in the eyes of the civilized world of wrongdoing of the basest and foulest kind, when he has not one shadow of justification of any sort.”

    — President Theodore Roosevelt (in special message to Congress, Dec. 15, 1908)

  • Why did the nation’s founders decide to protect freedom of the press? What is the role of a free press in the United States? What kind of stories should it be covering?
  • To what extent, if any, should presidents interfere with the press?
  • Could a criminal libel prosecution by the government in this case endanger freedom of press? Why or why not?
  • The definition of criminal libel requires that harm or damage has been done to the public. In this case, how would argue that printing these stories harmed the American public? How would you argue that it did not?
  • Could choosing to do nothing about these stories harm the reputation of the country and/or its leadership? Why or why not?
  • Should the press be held to higher standards of information during election years, when their reports could impact the outcome at the polls?
  • How is the president’s position different from other private individuals or other politicians named in the newspapers’ stories?

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