August 5 – Zenger Found “Not Guilty”

Posted on August 5, 2014

If a powerful leader such as a mayor, governor, or president was doing something very wrong, and a newspaper reporter found out about the wrongdoing...should he publish his findings?

I hope you answered, “Of course!”

But...this leader is powerful. And he or she is part of the government. Wouldn't the government official be able to make a lot of trouble for the reporter?

Once again, I hope you are answering that the freedom of the press (and we include podcasts and TV reporting and radio broadcasts and blogs as part of the “press”) is very important to a free society. The people MUST be informed of the wrongdoing of their elected officials, and the informers themselves must be protected.

The question of the day is, how did “freedom of the press” get started?

Today is the historic anniversary of an important step toward that freedom.

German-born John Peter Zenger was a publisher and printer working in New York City. He actually started a publication in order to express his criticisms of the colonial governor William Cosby.

Cosby didn't like being criticized in print. He issued an official proclamation that said that Zenger's New York Weekly Journal was filled with “divers scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections.”

And then Cosby sent police officers out to arrest Zenger on charges of “seditious libel.” After more than eight months in prison, after two trials and several lawyers, the public was behind Zenger and hanging on every word of the trial. The main defense lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, pleaded the case directly to the jury (because the judge owed his position to Cosby and had been showing bias at every turn.

And how did the lawyer defend Zenger? He obviously HAD published the things that Governor Cosby said he had – the printed papers were right there, for all to see! Hamilton's argument was that, if he could prove that the things Zenger had said were TRUE, it wasn't libel.

That's not how things were seen back then. There was an argument that “a libel is no less a libel for being true.” In British law, back then, truthful criticisms of others were the worst sort of libel, because if the criticisms were true, the criticized couldn't easily refute them.

Hamilton argued that people ought to be able to criticize their government. Zenger, writing as Cato in his Journal, said, “The exposing therefore of public wickedness, as it is a duty which every man owes to the truth and his country, can never be a libel in the nature of things...”

On this date in 1735, the jury found Zenger innocent of libel. The truth won out!

Did you know...?

Libel is now generally defined as false statements appearing in print (or via audio visual media) that harm the reputation of a business, individual, product, government, or even group.

Slander is the same thing but spoken rather than published or broadcast.

Defamation is the general term that includes libel and slander.

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