John Peter Zenger and Freedom of the Press

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Part 1: Zenger and Libel

The history of libel in American can be traced directly to one man: John Peter Zenger.

(Libel is printed material that is known to be false. It usually involves verbal attacks on people, usually public figures like government officials or celebrities.)

Zenger was a printer, the publisher of the New York Weekly Journal. He stood accused of printing comments that were critical of the British governor of New York, William Cosby. Zenger began publishing his newspaper in late 1733. The following year (November 17, 1734), he was arrested and thrown in jail. The charge was libel.

Now, the laws prohibiting libel at that time meant that you couldn't print anything bad about the government or you'd be arrested. Zenger was publishing words that were critical of Governor Cosby, and the governor didn't like it. So he had Zenger arrested and thrown in jail.

The young printer sat in jail for eight months until his case came to trial. Interest in the case grew and grew, with both sides taking a keen interest. Finally, Zenger got a chance to have his say in court.

He was defended by a brilliant young attorney named Andrew Hamilton, whose brother was Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers. Andrew Hamilton saw a way to make a name for himself and for his client. He also saw a way to change the face of law forever in America. His strategy: argue that it wasn't libel if it was true.

Governor Cosby and his men didn't do much to dispute what Zenger had printed in his newspaper; rather, they just had him arrested for printing it. But in the trial, Hamilton argued that a man couldn't be arrested for printing the truth. Why, this was freedom of the press, Hamilton argued.

Next page > The Famous Trial > Page 1, 2

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David White