On November 17, 1734, the publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, was arrested and charged with libel by the state of New York, then governed by the King of England, George II. Zenger had published critical pieces about the King’s appointed Governor of New York, William Cosby. Zenger was held in jail for nine months and tried for printing seditious libel. In an enormous upset, Zenger was found not guilty by the jury. The case Crown v. Zenger became a landmark decision in the freedom of the press.
In 1733, Chief Judge of New York, Lewis Morris, wrote a dissenting opinion about a case involving Governor Cosby. Consequently, Governor Cosby had Justice Morris removed from his seat. Morris then went on to write scathing criticisms of Cosby in the New York Weekly Journal, branding the governor a tyrant. In his quest to shut down the paper that dared oppose him, Governor Cosby had the publisher, John Peter Zenger, arrested and charged with libel. Unlike today, libel in the 18th century referred to any writing that opposed His Majesty’s government— veracity of the statement notwithstanding.
Zenger was held in jail for nine months before his trial took place. He was presented before Chief Justice James De Lancey, the very judge the governor appointed to replace Lewis Morris. Justice De Lancey did not make things easy for Zenger or his attorneys, whom he had disbarred after they claimed that De Lancey shouldn’t be the one making the decision since the removal of Justice Morris had been unlawful in the first place. Zenger’s next lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, argued in front of the jury that “the question before the Court and you, Gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern. It is not the cause of one poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. No! It may in its consequence affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty.” He argued that while Zenger admitted to having published the criticism of the governor, the decision lay in whether or not the information was true.
Justice De Lancey ordered the jury to decide the case based only on whether or not Zenger had actually printed the information. The jury deliberated for only ten minutes before returning with a verdict of “not guilty.” This reversal was an early instance of jury nullification, in which a jury disregards the law and acquits the defendant despite the jury’s belief that they are guilty. The jury believed that the printed criticism of the governor was fact and therefore could not be considered libel. This changed the definition libel. Now, to be considered libel, information must be decidedly false. This change encouraged other publishers to call out corruption in government—an act instrumental in the ushering in of the American Revolution. Crown v. Zenger planted the seed that eventually bloomed in to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
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