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John Peter Zenger Trial: 1735

Zenger's Attack On The Royal Governor, Cosby Strikes Back, Hamilton's Appeal For Press Freedom

Name of Defendant: John Peter Zenger
Crime Charged: Seditious libel
Chief Defense Lawyers: Andrew Hamilton and John Chambers
Chief Prosecutor: Richard Bradley
Judge: James De Lancey
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: August 1735
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: By accepting truth as a legitimate defense in a libel case brought against a newspaper editor by a public official, the jury laid the foundations of freedom of the press in America later codified in the Bill of Rights.

Arguably the single most significant political trial ever held in an American courtroom took place in New York City in 1735, well before the colonies fought for and gained independence. The defendant was a printer charged with the crime of seditious libel for publishing items in the New York Weekly Journal that skewered and taunted the greedy royal governor of the colony of New York and his judicial appointees. John Peter Zenger's acquittal deeply and firmly planted the roots of freedom of the press in American soil by overthrowing the orthodox legal view that the publication of stinging criticism or ridicule of public officials was, at the very least, a threat to law and order and, at the worst, treason, and thus worthy of severe punishment as "seditious libel."

Fifty years later, American statesman and diplomat Gouverneur Morris described the verdict in this case as "the morning star of liberty which subsequently revolutionized America." Embedded in the Declaration of Independence and in the Bill of Rights of the U. S. Constitution, which Morris helped write, are the basic freedoms for which Zenger and his allies fought.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832