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Zenger Trial

John Peter Zenger and the Zenger Trial

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John Peter Zenger was born in Germany in 1697. He immigrated to New York with his family. His father died during the voyage, and his mother, Joanna, was left to support him and his two siblings. At the age of 13, Zenger was apprenticed to the prominent printer William Bradford. He eventually opened his own printing shop in 1726.

He was approached by Lewis Morris, a chief justice who had been removed from the bench by Governor William Cosby after he ruled against him. Morris and his associates created the “Popular Party” in opposition to Governor Cosby and needed a newspaper to help them spread the word. Zenger agreed to print their paper as the New York Weekly Journal.

At first, the governor ignored the newspaper. However, one it became more popular, he decided to put a stop to it and a formal charge of seditious libel was made against Zenger. Unlike today where libel is only proven when the published information is not only false but intended to harm the individual, libel at this time was defined as holding the king or his agents up to public ridicule. It did not matter how true the printed information was.

Despite the charge, the governor was unable to sway a grand jury. Instead, Zenger was arrested based on prosecutors’ “information,” a way to circumvent the grand jury.

Zenger was defended by Andrew Hamilton. He successfully argued to the jury that Zenger was allowed to print things as long as they were true. The result did not create a legal precedent because a jury’s verdict does not change the law. However, it had a huge impact on the colonists who saw the importance of a free press to hold the government power in check. Nonetheless, individuals would continue to be punished for publishing information harmful to the government until state constitutions and later the US Constitution in the Bill of Rights would guarantee a free press.

Zenger continued to publish the New York Weekly Journal until his death in 1746.

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