Publication information

Central Law Journal
Source type: journal
Document type: editorial
Document title: none
Author(s): anonymous
Date of publication: 27 September 1901
Volume number: 53
Issue number: 13
Pagination: 241-42

[untitled]. Central Law Journal 27 Sept. 1901 v53n13: pp. 241-42.
full text
McKinley assassination (motive); incitement to violence (criminal liability); anarchism (dealing with); freedom of speech (restrictions on).
Named persons
Benjamin D. Magruder; William McKinley.
A letter to the editor responding to this editorial appears in the 18 October 1901 issue of this journal. Click here to view this letter.


     The assassination of President McKinley has forced upon the consideration of the country questions of the most serious import—questions which have arisen heretofore, but have been permitted to smolder and to remain unanswered.
     The act which resulted in the death of the President is, of course, murder and punishable by death, but the motives which prompted the assassin are important. It was a blow directed, not against Mr. McKinley, but against the President of the United States; it was prompted not by anger or spite against the man, but a deep seated prejudice against the office and the authority it represented. It was executed, not out of hope of any mere personal advantage, but under a settled conviction that the success of certain principles of government, called “anarchy,” were necessary to release the world from an imagined tyranny, and that the death of those high in authority were the legitimate and nearest means of its attainment. The assassin, therefore, in this case, as in every such case, poses as a martyr to principle, and the death penalty does not call him to repentance. Herein lies the exceeding seriousness of this question. These principles have other votaries, and a propaganda which seeks to obtain the same awful and controlling influence over others. What is the remedy.
     The criminal liability of those who directly incite others to deeds of violence or combine with them to overthrow the government is one of the first questions which suggest themselves, and was clearly decided in the cases which arose out of the anarchist uprising in Chicago in 1886, known as the Haymarket Cases. In one of these cases the editor of the Arbeiter Zeitung, who had incited the anarchists to violence together with a number of their leaders were convicted of murder and executed. Chief Justice Magruder, of the Supreme Court of Illinois, in passing upon the case, declared the law to be as follows: “If men combine together as conspirators to accomplish an unlawful purpose, as the overthrow of society and government and law, called by them a ‘social revolution,’ and seek, as a means to an end, to print and speak, in order to incite others to tumult and riot and murder, those who advise or instigate the others to violence will be held responsible for the murder that may result from their aid and encouragement.” Spies v. People, 122 Ill. 1. Further on, in speaking of the liability of editors and orators who spread the pernicious doctrine of anarchy, the court advances this bold statement of the law so appropriate to the present crisis and its lessons: “He who inflames people’s minds and induces them by violent means to accomplish an illegal object, is himself a rioter, though he takes no part in the riot. If he wakes into action an indiscriminate power, he is responsible. If he gives directions vaguely and incautiously, and the person receiving them acts according to what he might have foreseen would be the understanding, he is responsible. It can make no difference whether the mind is affected by inflammatory words addressed to the reader through the newspaper organ of a society to which he belongs, or to the hearer through the spoken words of an orator whom he looks up to as a representative of his own peculiar class.” This rule does not deny the right of free speech or of the liberty of the press, but holds both the orator and the editor liable for the results which flow from the expression of his sentiments.
     The proper limitations on the liberty of the press and their criminal responsibility for creating a feeling of discontent among the unthinking masses, and of disrespect for law and authority, or for instigating to crime and immorality, is a very difficult problem and one which has never been definitely or satisfactorily determined. The late case of Re Banks, 56 Kan. 242, goes very far in applying a remedy. In that case a statute of Kansas providing for punishment for publishing a newspaper devoted largely to the publication of scandals and accounts of lecherous and immoral conduct was held not in violation of the constitutional right of all persons freely to “speak, write, or publish their sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of such right.” The court said: “We entertain no doubt that the legislature has power to sup- [241][242] press this class of publications without in any manner violating the constitutional liberties of the press.” Most authorities, however, are not willing as yet to go to the extent of this case, and deny the right of the legislature to prohibit the publication of a newspaper for any reason, holding that the only proper remedy is against the newspaper and its publisher, either criminally or civilly, for any abuse of his privileges. Exparte Neill, 32 Tex Cr. Rep. 275.
     Where a newspaper, however, attempts to ridicule and abuse the judiciary they are treading on very dangerous ground. A most commendable and wholesome tendency is to be observed of late years on the part of courts all over the country to hold newspapers to a strict accountability for all publications derogatory of the court or its decisions. The rule in this regard was well stated by the court in the case of State v. Morrill, 16 Ark. 388, as follows: “Any citizen has the right to publish the proceedings and decisions of a court, and if he deems it necessary for the public good, to comment upon them freely, and discuss the fitness or unfitness of the judges for their stations, but he has no right to attempt by defamatory publications to degrade the tribunal, destroy public confidence in it, and dispose the community to disregard and set at naught its orders, judgments and decrees. Such publications are an abuse of the liberty of the press, and tend to sap the very foundation of good order and well-being in society. The liberty of the press is one thing, and licentious scandal is another.”