The federal district court decision in United States v. Smith, 173 F. 227 (D. Ct., D. Indiana, 1909), by Judge Albert Barnes Anderson, preceded and ultimately complemented the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Press Publishing Co. (1911).
Roosevelt seeks to prosecute Indianapolis News for libel over Panama Canal stories
The News had published stories questioning the financial aspects of acquisition of the Panama Canal. President Theodore Roosevelt considered these stories libelous and sought a libel prosecution in Washington, D.C. (for which Congress had adopted Maryland’s libel laws), where some copies of the News had been distributed.
Federal judge refuses to allow prosecution in another state
Although Judge Anderson raised questions as to whether or not the stories qualified as libelous — even suggesting that papers might have the duty to report on such matters — his more important contribution for First Amendment purposes was in ruling that if any offense had occurred, it had taken place in Indiana rather than in the nation’s capital and thus could only be prosecuted in Indiana under the Sixth Amendment, which guaranteed trial in criminal prosecutions “by an impartial jury of the state or district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”
Anderson observed that “if the prosecuting officers have the authority to select the tribunal, if there be more than one tribunal to select from, if the government has that power, and can drag citizens from distant states to the capital of the nation, there to be tried, then, as Judge [Thomas B.] Cooley says, this is a strange result of a revolution where one of the grievances complained of [among other places, in the Declaration of Independence] was the assertion of the right to send parties abroad for trial.”
John Vile is professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.