If this year’s election cycle has taught us anything, it is this: elections can be ugly affairs. Finger pointing. Name calling. Mudslinging. Dirty tricks. These are the things that dominate our headlines as the November, 2016 election approaches. But don’t fool yourself into thinking this is something new in American politics. No, electioneering has always been a rough and tumble affair as today’s flashback case reminds us.
The year was 1873. The plaintiff, James Sweeney, was running for the West Virginia House of Delegates. His candidacy was vigorously opposed by the Wheeling Register, which proceeded to write a series of blistering editorials. The newspaper accused Sweeney of being stupid, lazy and morally bankrupt, stating that he was:
- a confessed ignoramus
- a gambler
- associated with bullies and black legs
- a social leper
- a rogue
- a rowdy
- a drunkard
- a whoremonger
Asked the newspaper: “Would you select a man to make laws, whom you would kick out of your house, and would not trust in your hen-coop? Certainly not.” The newspaper then issued a final directive to its readers: “It is as much the duty of the citizen to vote against [Sweeney] as it would be to deodorize against cholera.”
Sweeney fought back, suing the newspaper for libel. In May, 1876, the case was tried and a jury returned a verdict in Sweeney’s favor. Damages in the amount of $8,000 were awarded, and the newspaper promptly appealed.
The Supreme Court affirmed in a lengthy opinion. The outcome would probably have been different today because of substantial changes in libel law that have occurred over the last 150 years. Despite this, the Supreme Court understood the delicate balancing act that lies at the heart of cases like this–protecting the right to a free, vibrant press, while at the same time protecting and compensating those who are injured by false, hurtful things that may be published by the press:
“When any man shall consent to be a candidate for public office, conferred by the election of the people, he must be considered as putting his character in issue, so far as it may respect his fitness and qualifications for the office… [Nevertheless,] [t]he publication of falsehood and calumny against public officers, or candidates for public offices, is an offense most dangerous to the people, and deserves punishment, because the people may be deceived, and reject the best citizens, to their great injury, and it may be to the loss of their liberties.”
Nasty elections will always be with us. Most of the time, the political fighting will occur outside of the legal system and will be resolved once and for all at the ballot box. In rare cases, however, the parties find their way into the courts. When they do, the courts are faced with an almost impossible task. Who will prevail? The press? Or the politician? In a Wheeling courtroom in the 1800s, it was the politician, Sweeney, who won. Would the same thing happen today? Probably not, but the courts stand ready to decide these kinds of disputes whenever and wherever they may be called upon.
Sweeney v. Baker, 13 W.Va. 158 (1878)