What Was The Significance Of The John Peter Zenger Trial?

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The trial of John Peter Zenger, which was held in New York City in 1735, established the first victory for freedom of the press (the right of newspapers to print truthful information) in the American colonies. Zenger was a German-born printer and journalist who published the New-York Weekly Journal, a newspaper that provided a political forum for colonists who opposed the policies of New York governor William Cosby. Zenger began his career as an apprentice at the New York Gazette, the official newspaper of the colonies. When prosperous colonial businessmen became dissatisfied with Cosby, they approached Zenger about publishing another newspaper. With their backing, Zenger edited and published the first Weekly Journal on November 5, 1733. Because articles contained harsh criticism of Cosby, the angry governor burned several issues. A year later he ordered that Zenger be arrested, though that action did not prevent Zenger from smuggling editorials to his wife from his jail cell.

When Zenger went to trial in August 1735, the well-known Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton (1676–1741) represented him. Although Hamilton conceded that Zenger had published the newspapers, he argued that Zenger had not libeled the governor. The prosecution argued that the definition of libel was stating words that are "scandalous, seditious, and tend to disquiet the people." The presiding judge and Cosby ally, James De Lancey (1703–1760), agreed with the prosecution and did not allow Hamilton to show how statements published in the Weekly Journal were true. During his final arguments, Hamilton accused the court of suppressing evidence and of urging the seven members of the jury not to convict Zenger. Hamilton then approached them and urged them to support Zenger's efforts to present the truth to ordinary citizens. The jury found Zenger not guilty. He left prison the next day, returned to his newspaper business, and began to publish the transcript of his trial. The trial became famous throughout the American colonies and in Europe. When the United States of America was formed after the American Revolution (1775–83), the founding fathers remembered Zenger and the principles of his case. As a result of the case, they wrote the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1788; the document containing the country's laws), which guarantees the freedom to publish any opinions in newspapers, magazines, and books without government interference or censorship.

Further Information: "John Peter Zenger." Compton's Encyclopedia Online. [Online] Available http://www.comptons.com/encyclopedia/ARTICLES/0200/02000384_A.html, October 30, 2000; "John Peter Zenger." Merriam-Websters Biographical Dictionary. May, 1995, p. 7109; Peter Zenger and Freedom of the Press. [Online] Available http://earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/bookmarks/zenger/, October 30, 2000.

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