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Where would the first amendment be without John Peter Zenger?

Posted by: | September 22, 2010 | No Comment |
front cover of The Printers Trial by Gail Jarrow

front cover of The Printer's Trial by Gail Jarrow

There is no free society without a free press. Why were James Madison and George Mason adamant that freedom of the press was necessary in the newly formed America? They may have remembered the trial of John Peter Zenger.

John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who was a printer. He supported himself mainly by printing religious pamphlets, but would take on other jobs if asked. It was one of these side jobs that led to his arrest, imprisonment, and his place in history.

A corrupt government official,  Governor William Cosby began his new assignment as Governor of New York Province on August 7, 1731. One of his first tasks was to demand half the salary of Rip Van Dam during the time he had served as acting governor of New York. When Van Dam refused to pay, Cosby sued him.

The lawsuit ended up in the Supreme Court and Cosby won with 2 judges voting for him and 1 against. Cosby demanded that the dissenting judge (Chief Justice Lewis Morris) explain why he had voted against him. Morris wrote a letter of explanation which he asked Zenger to print and publicly distribute. Cosby fired Morris and replaced him with James Delancey.

Cosby’s enemies began working against him. Rip Van Dam, Lewis Morris and an attorney named James Alexander banded together to form the Popular Party to threaten Cosby politically. Alexander thought they needed to inform the public of Cosby’s corruption. When asked, Zenger agreed to publish a weekly newspaper called the New York Weekly Journal.

The Weekly Journal was first published on November 5, 1733. Every week brought the public more stories about Cosby’s corruption. Cosby retaliated by attempting to have the Weekly Journal shut down. In both January and October of 1734, he brought charges of “seditious libel” against the Weekly Journal but the Grand Jury refused to convict because they could not be sure if it was Alexander or Zenger who were writing the stories about Cosby.

To get around the Grand Jury’s refusal to convict, Cosby ordered his attorney general, Richard Bradley to file “information” with Justices Delancey and Philipse. Based on the information, Zenger was arrested on November 17, 1734. He spent the next 8 months in jail, but the Weekly Journal missed only one issue, the one to come out on November 18, 1734. Zenger continued to write “letters from prison” to his readers.

The trial began on August 4, 1735 with Zenger being tried for libel. His attorney Andrew Hamilton did not dispute the claim that the Weekly Journal was publishing stories that were unflattering to Governor Cosby. Hamilton said that the Weekly Journal should be allowed to publish these stories because they were all true.

Chief Justice Delancey ruled that Hamilton could not use the truth of the stories in the Weekly Journal as evidence. The law was clearly on Cosby’s side. Chief Justice Delancey told the jury that they must find Zenger guilty. The jury came back with a verdict of Not Guilty.

Although the law did not change at that time, it became very difficult to prosecute a libel case when attorneys could not be sure the jury would vote to convict. The public had spoken and the attorneys would listen. James Madison and George Mason made sure that  the press could not be prosecuted for telling the truth.

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