On this date, Nov. 17, 1734, New York printer and journalist John Peter Zenger (1697-1746) was arrested. A German immigrant, Zenger founded and published the New York Weekly Journal in 1733. In one of his early articles (signed “Cato”), he wrote that “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.”
With his reference to “country,” Zenger prefigured the movement for independence by more than 40 years. He wrote critical articles against New York colonial governor William Cosby, who had him arrested on charges of “seditious libel.”
Zenger spent eight months in prison, from whence he continued to edit his newspaper. After arguments concluded in his trial, the jury deliberated for ten minutes before reaching its decision: Not guilty.
Zenger’s case established a basic principle in American law, even while the American colonies remained subject to the British monarchy, that truth is a defense against libel. His case was an early test of the freedom of the press, which became enshrined in Article I of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.
The principle of a free press is always subject to challenge in every country. Repercussions of Zenger’s victory resonate powerfully today in the United States, in such stories as Gary Webb’s attempt to reveal CIA funding of the crack cocaine epidemic in America and in the current controversy over the rightness of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden releasing classified documents to the world that place U.S. policy in an unfavorable light. Zenger’s story is forever “to be continued.”
Photo: Drawing of the trial of Zenger. Wikipedia (CC)