In Great Lives, by William Jay Jacobs, one of the biographies is of John Peter Zenger (1697 – 1746) – “Printer whose trial for libel helped establish the principle of free press in America”. The below is quoted and paraphrased from this biography.
Zenger was being tried for publishing unfavorable articles about William Cosby – a greedy, arrogant, ill-tempered, autocratic governor of the colony of New York. You can read about just how bad he was in this short biography.
The striking thing is not just the courage of Zenger who continued publishing despite being jailed, “not allowed pen, ink or paper” by communicating instructions to his wife and servants through the hole in the prison door, but the trial and the defense by Andrew Hamilton who was nearly 80 years old at time.
Zenger was charged with:
“false News and seditions Libels” intended “wickedly and maliciously” to “scandalize and vilify His Excellency, the Governor…,” thus stirring the people to revolt from the government.
Hamilton argued that it is the government’s responsibility to prove what was published was false to reach a conviction for libel. Here in part is Hamilton’s speech to the jury quoted from the book.
…the suppression of Evidence ought always to be taken for the strongest Evidence…If a person in government…can simply charge a person with lying and not have to prove it was a lie, any coward can cut down and destroy the innocent. Must people be silent in the face of wicked ruler?
It sounds eerily contemporary to me.
Hamilton went on to argue that “the right of a person to complain against government is a Natural Right” – words that showed up in the Declaration of Independence about 40 years later.
The jury, despite all the obstacles of the trial, found for Zenger and thus established the freedom of the press and the liberties we enjoy today.
After almost 300 years of enjoyment, let’s not let them go lightly.