Sunday, March 02, 2008

Zenger's Trial

“Even Zenger’s defense had not challenged the principle that words were punishable as crime if their truth could not be established and they had the “bad tendency” of encouraging disrespect and disorder. Because there were so few cases after Zenger, seditious libel law had received little further legal, philosophical, or public attention at the time of the Revolution.”—Starr P73

The Zenger trial was a remarkable preface of American’s freedom of press. “No case in America stands as a greater landmark on the road to protection for freedom of the press than the trial of a German Immigrant printer named John Peter Zenger.”—a quote from The Trial of John Peter Zenger: An Account. John Peter Zenger was an apprentice to William Bradford, the New York’s only printer in the seventeenth century. In 1733, Zenger agreed to James Alexander, the former New York Attorney General, and published a weekly newspaper called New York Weekly Journal. The Journal’s mission was: “Inclosed is also the first of a newspaper designed to be continued weekly, chiefly to expose him [Cosby] and those ridiculos flatteries with which Mr. Harison loads our other newspaper which our Governor claims and has the privilege of suffering nothing to be in but what he and Mr. Harison approve of.”

Cosby was the Governor for New York Province since 1731. He was considered as “a rogue governor”—“spiteful, greedy, jealous, quick-tempered, dull, unlettered, and haughty.” In some issues of the Journal, in addition to editorializing about the dubious actions of Cosby, it contained clear defenses of the right to publish. Cosby decided to shut down the Journal in January 1734, but was refused by the Grand Jury, calming that authorship of the allegedly libelous material could not be determined. On August 5th, 1735, the twelve New York jurors returned a verdict of “not guilty” on the charge of publishing “seditious libels.”

In 1736, Zenger published a verbatim account of the trial as A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger. “No nation, ancient of modern, ever lost the liberty of speaking freely, writing, or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves”, stated by Zenger.

Another person could not be neglected in the success of this case. That was Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton. Hamilton argued to the jury that there was no libel in publishing the truth. Yet despite the celebrated case, colonial governors prosecute and imprison printers for publishing unapproved views. Freedom of speech in the United States was protected by the First Amendment in 1791.


At 6:34 PM, Blogger A. Mattson said...

A very good post.

The Zenger case is an important milestone in American media history. Especially since it is essentially an example of jury nullification. If the jury had followed British law instead of Andrew Hamilton's argument they would have convicted Zenger for libel. The role of the public in juries and as voters was an important part of defending freedom of the press. The British empire preferred judges from the Royal Navy to colonial juries.


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