Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 193

In January, 1835, Joseph Howe, publisher of the Halifax newspaper the Novascotian, printed an anonymous letter claiming that local government authorities were extorting a thousand pounds a year from the poor. Howe was then charged with criminal libel. Not satisfied with merely printing a retraction in his newspaper, Howe took the authorities to court. No lawyer would take his case, however, claiming that because the criminal law would not allow him to defend the truth of his statements, he had no defense. Howe responded by studying libel law himself and preparing a speech in his own defense.

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Howe’s trial lasted two days. In a brilliantly inspired six-hour speech, Howe appealed to the jury, ingeniously couching direct accusations against the authorities in emotional and eloquent requests for justice and freedom of the press.

Both the judge and the district attorney were appointees of the government, and the judge made a point of instructing the jury to find Howe guilty of libel. Despite this, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty in ten minutes. The trial was heralded throughout both Canada and the United States as a confirmation of true freedom of the press.

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