Truth Be Told: The Landmark Libel Case That Nearly Stopped the Press

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By Ken Zurski

On November 17, 1734, a German immigrant and printer named John Peter Zenger, known for his influential newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, was thrown in jail for seditious libel.

Zenger was accused of printing unflattering and damaging stories about William S. Cosby, the 24th colonel governor of the Province of New York.  Among other things, the Journal claimed Cosby rigged elections, stole collected taxes, misappropriated Indian lands, and allowed enemy ships, like the French, to dock in New York harbor. This was tantamount to treason, the article implied.

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William S. Cosby

The article provoked an already dubious reputation. As a public servant, Cosby was known as a notoriously giving man, but only for the benefit of his fellow Royalists.  He tried and often failed to secure higher salaries for his friends and officers. The Journal finally unleashed an onslaught of charges against him.

Cosby fired back, ordering his men to burn up the remaining editions of the Journal, claiming libel laws, and demanding justice.  In the early 18th century, under British rule, any information published that was opposed to the monarchy was considered a violation of the law. The truth, as it was understood, was irrelevant. Cosby had a case.

But who to blame?

Zenger was the printer of the article and claimed not to have written it. But when asked to reveal the name of the writer – or writers – listed as anonymous in the paper, he refused. Zenger was arrested, incarcerated and left to await trail. Nearly a year later, in August of 1735, when the jury was finally seated, the Chief Justice in the case, James DeLancey, thought the proceedings would end quickly.

He was right, to a point.

A lawyer from Philadelphia named Andrew Hamilton was called upon to serve as Zenger’s counsel . The Scotland born Hamilton practiced law in Maryland and Pennsylvania and oftentimes traveled between the two provinces to accept cases and appointments. He mostly avoided New York. But when Zenger’s lawyers, a couple of locals, were stricken from the case because they had objected to DeLancey’s commission, Hamilton, a friend and an outsider, stepped in.

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Andrew Hamilton

Hamilton went to work. He demanded the prosecution prove the allegations were false or the jury must free Zenger immediately. “It is not the cause of one poor printer,” Hamilton insisted, “but the cause of liberty.”

Hamilton’s words were prophetic and Zenger’s case would begin a contentious debate that would last until 1791 when under a new constitution of laws, the expression known as “Freedom of Press,” was included in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.

But that precedent would be set only if Hamilton was persuasive enough to exonerate Zenger. Libel only exists when falsehoods are perpetrated, not the truth, he argued.

It took the jury less than ten minutes to come back with a verdict.

“Not guilty” was their response.

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