The Trial of John Peter Zenger 1735
John Peter Zenger (1697–1746), William Cosby (1690–1736), Andrew Hamilton (c. 1676–1741)
New York Governor William Cosby, a dishonest and greedy robber, had control of the city’s sole established newspaper, which, of course, backed him against his critics. A leader of the opposition commissioned John Peter Zenger, a printer, to create a new publication in which they could air their grievances.
The Weekly Journal was founded, with its first editorials aimed at exposing the governor’s political ineptitude. Cosby, desperate to put a stop to the fledgling publication, had all copies destroyed. For his attacks on the government, he had Zenger arrested and accused with seditious libels.
Defamation was considered libelous regardless of whether the remarks were accurate, and a court determined what was defamatory. The jury’s job in this case was to figure out if Zenger published them, which he never disputed. Zenger was represented at trial by Andrew Hamilton, a well-known Philadelphia trial lawyer. In a brilliant, impassioned conclusion, Hamilton persuaded the jurors of their own ability to define the essence of liberty itself.
The question may, in turn, influence every free individual who lives… on America’s main street…. It is for the sake of liberty…. Every man who prefers freedom to servitude will praise and respect you as men who have defied tyranny and… established a magnificent foundation for ensuring… a right to liberty of both exposing and resisting arbitrary authority… via speaking and writing truth.
Against all odds, the jury declared Zenger not guilty, demonstrating jurors’ amazing ability to influence the fate of individuals and society as a whole. The twelve men who released Zenger established the groundwork for the rights to free speech and a free press, which were formalized and codified in the Bill of Rights fifty years later. Indeed, one of the Founding Fathers and a Constitution author, Gouverneur Morris, called the case “the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which afterwards transformed America.”
Limits on Libel Laws (1964).
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)