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The Acquittal of John Peter Zenger
The First, First Report
By Steve Goldman
NCSA Member #9

One of the most important events in American journalism history occurred in New York in 1735. This, of course, was the libel trail of John Peter Zenger, printer of the New York Weekly Journal.

John Peter Zenger arrived in New York from Germany in 1710 and served an apprenticeship to William Bradford, printer of the New York Gazette. In 1733 New York Colonial Governor William Cosby stirred up a great controversy by prosecuting the interim Governor, Rip Van Dam, and removing Chief Justice Lewis Morris from the courts. After Governor Cosby adopted arbitrary measures against these men, and opposition group arose to fight him politically. These wealthy and powerful men established an opposition newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, and hired John Peter Zenger as the printer and editor. The Weekly Journal printed numerous articles critical of Governor Cosby until Cosby could take it no longer. In November, 1734, Cosby had Zenger arrested and put in jail incommunicado for ten months.

On August 4, 1735, Zenger was brought to trial and charged with seditious libel. He was defended by Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton. The prosecution argued that the sole fact of publication was sufficient to convict and excluded the truth from the evidence. Hamilton admitted that Zenger published the offending stories, but denied that it was libel unless it was false. Hamilton made an eloquent appeal to the jury to judge both the law and the facts; as a result was acquitted. This finding of not guilty established truth as a defense against libel and was a landmark victory for freedom of the press. It also set a precedent against judicial tyranny in libel suits.

It has long been held that the first report of Zenger's victory in court came in his own newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal of August 18, 1735. The front page of that date contains the abbreviated story of his trial and in column two states "The jury returned in Ten Minutes, and found me Not Guilty" However, a review of the Journal file from 1735 reveals that the issue of August 18 was not the earliest report of Zenger's being freed.

Although the New York Weekly Journal of August 11, 1735 had nothing on the trial itself, there is a printer's note at the end of the last column on page 4. It read, "The Printer, now having got his liberty again, designs God willing to Finish and Publish the Charter of the City of New York next week."

So read your newspapers carefully as they sometimes whisper things to you if you take the time to read and listen.

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