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John Peter Zenger and Freedom of the Press


Part 2: The Famous Trial

It was a novel idea, one that challenged every royal law on the books concerning newspapers and public announcements and what you could say and what you couldn't. Hamilton was asking for a fundamental re-examination of just what these laws meant and what they prohibited.

Andrew Hamilton also changed American courts for good by arguing his case directly to the jury. During this time, the usual practice was to argue one's case to the judge, who would then explain to the jury what he thought the verdict should be. The jury was little more than a group of yes-men. (Women weren't allowed.)

But Hamilton involved them directly in all that was going on. He wanted them to make up their own minds on what was libel and what was truth. And make up their own minds they did, returning a verdict of not guilty.

Zenger was free from prison, free to resume publication of his newspaper, free to keep on printing truths about the governor, no matter how much he didn't like it.

When the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution almost 50 years later, one of the main parts of the First Amendment was government protection of freedom of the press. This action had its beginnings in the case of John Peter Zenger.

First page > Zenger and Libel > Page 1, 2

Graphics courtesy of ArtToday


 
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