Thursday, November 11, 2010

John Peter Zenger

No one imagined that Zenger's acquittal set a legal precedent for the elimination of restrictions on the press - it was an instance of jury nullification, not a judicial opinion - and indeed decades would pass before printers in either America or Great Britain were safe from official scrutiny. What made the case so significant to contemporaries, rather, was that it sent a clear warning to judges and prosecutors that the law of libel was out of step with popular sentiment and that they could no longer rely on juries to shield the government from public censure. In doing so, moreover, the Zenger verdict endorsed assumptions about relations between "the people" and their rulers long familiar to reader's of Cato's Letters or the Craftsman - that executive power tends to expand at the expense of liberty, and that to protect themselves, freemen must be able to speak their minds without fear of official retribution.
Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), Kindle Location 3979-85.
The trial of John Peter Zenger against charges of seditious libel is a fascinating story from New York City's early history. The case would not only be a landmark decision for the city, but would have long term effects on what would become the United States of America. The fact that Zenger's lawyer (Andrew Hamilton) led his defense for free was one of the best parts. In essence, Zenger was accused of seditious libel which even Hamilton agreed with was true under the existing law of that time. However, he convinced the jury to partake in jury nullification appealing to the common sense of liberty and freedom of press. It was the law that was at the heart of the issue - not the guilt of the defendent. Highly intelligent defense and one that has has had such tremendous impact on our society today.

Defamatory statements are not always the most pleasant - but there is tremendous value in being able to speak one's mind. From the results of the Zenger case, we eventually reached the ability to simply state our opinions whether factual or not. Of course there is a certain amount of trouble that comes with freedom - and yet the absence of it would be far more damning to our culture. It is so ironic how easy it is to take for granted our freedoms in this country. Freedom of the press seems so "normal" in our Internet age where everyone says whatever they want. And yet at one point, not too long ago, that ability did not exist. Thanks to the courage of men like Zenger & Hamilton as well as the jury that sided with them - we now can boldy state what and why we believe.