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November 17, 1734 - Newspaper Publisher Arrested for “Seditious Libel” - Today In Crime History

On this day, November 17, in the year 1734, John Peter Zenger was arrested for seditious libel and held in jail for ten months before his case went to trial.  Alexander Hamilton represented him and despite heavy pressure from the colonial Governor's judges, was found not guilty. This case was important for setting a precedent of freedom of the press before America became an independent nation, even in criminal cases.

John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who printed a publication called “The New York Weekly Journal.”  This publication harshly pointed out the actions of the corrupt colonial New York governor, William S. Cosby.  It accused the colonial government of rigging elections and an assortment of crimes.  Zenger merely printed the articles, the authors were anonymous, and Zenger would not name them.

Unable to arrested and convict the anonymous authors, the colonial government set out to silence the publisher.  On November 17, 1734 Zenger was arrested for the offense of libel, a legal term whose meaning is quite different today than it was then.   In Zenger’s day it was libel if one published information that was opposed to the government.  Truth or falsity were irrelevant.  Zenger  never denied printing the pieces.  The judge therefore felt that the verdict was never in question.

When the trial began and Zenger's criminal defense attorney began the litigation, a stir fluttered through the courtroom.   The most famous lawyer in the colonies, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, stepped up to defend Zenger.   Hamilton admitted that Zenger printed the charges and demanded the prosecution to prove them false.  In a stirring appeal to the jury, criminal defense lawyer Andrew Hamilton pleaded for his client's release.  "It is not the cause of one poor printer," he claimed, "but the cause of liberty."  The judge ordered the jury to convict Zenger if they believed he printed the stories.  But the jury, ignoring the judicial instruction, returned a verdict of not guilty in less than ten minutes.

This verdict of not guilty would become one of the most famous case of jury nullification.  Jury nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of "Not Guilty" despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged.  The jury in effect nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding.

Sources and more information:

Famous American Trials, John Peter Zenger Trial, by Douglas Linder, University of Missouri, Kansas City

The Trial of John Peter Zenger, ushistory.org

Wikipedia: John Peter Zenger

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