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POLITICS

THE LIBEL TRIAL OF JOHN PETER ZENGER

Famous trials can also tell us something about American political values, particularly when one focuses attention on the improper conduct of prominent politicians. In the case of a poor and unknown printer in colonial New York, the issue would center around the press's right to publish information about politicians.

John Peter Zenger was arrested and imprisoned on the charge of printing libelous material about the colonial administration and the governor of New York, William Cosby. Zenger's arrest sparked a vigorous debate about the clash between a citizen's right to criticize his government, and the government's desire for public order and safety.

Zenger was drawn into the fray because he owned his own printing press, unusual in New York in 1735. He agreed to work with members of the opposition to Cosby's governorship, and he published articles, editorials, and letters critical of Cosby's corrupt behavior, which included nepotism, rigging elections, and tampering with the courts. Zenger published these unsigned writings under the heading of The New York Weekly Journal, Peter Zenger, Printer.

The Journal rapidly attained a wide circulation and contributed to the growth of the opposition movement. Governor Cosby ordered that copies of the paper be publicly burned, and city officials were commanded to witness the burning. No one showed up for the big event, and the papers were set ablaze in an empty street, which caused the incident to be dubbed "Cosby's Folly." In response, a furious Cosby decided to punish Zenger, the person responsible for printing the Journal.

Zenger's situation began to look grim when, on the first day of trial, the judge disbarred his attorneys and appointed Zenger a new defense counsel. The prevailing common law required only that the jury decide if Zenger had in fact printed the articles in question. The judw would then rule on whether the material violated libel laws, defined broadly at the time to include any printed comment casting disfavor on the government. Soon after the trial got underway, those present were shocked to hear a voice from the back of the courtroom. Andrew Hamilton, an eminent Philadelphia attorney and a revered legal mind, rose and walked forward, announcing his intention to act as Zengers attorney.Hamilton began by adopting a novel approach. Acknowledging that Zenger had published the alleged libels, he argued rather that Zenger had a right to print true statements about the government. Libelous statements were those that were purposefully false and seditious. The prosecutions case relied on the prevailing understanding that true statements could be libel if the judge perceived them to be.

The judge instructed the jury to rule only on the question of whether Zenger had published the statements, but after less than ten minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty, apparently persuaded that libel should exclude the publication of truthful statements. New Yorkers celebrated the victory, and Zengers published narrative of the trial became a guide used by those accused of censorship in future years. Moreover, Zenger's acquittal allowed citizens to criticize politicians and other elected officials without fear of reprisal, an important right incorporated into the First Ammendment.

 

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TITLE: Law and Legal Services at CitiMall.com Online Shopping Mall

Law Category: Prepaid Legal Services, Law , Legal, Attorney, Advice, Firm, Search, Attorneys, Lawyers, Power of Attorney, Durable, Forms

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