The year was 1733, the then royal governor
of New York
, one William Cosby, suspended one Lewis Morris , chief justice of the provincial
court, for ruling against him in a salary dispute. Mr Morris and some of the merchants and lawyers wanted to publicize their oppositiion to the ruling. Unfortunately, New York, at the time had only one newspaper, the New York Gazette. It seems that the New York Gazette was was in the good governor's pocket and would print no material critical of his policies. Mr Morris and his backers went in search for another New York printer to publish another newspaper. They were to provide the financial backing for this endeavor.
Enter one John Peter Zenger. Zenger had immigrated to America from Germany some twenty years earlier and, after serving an apprenticeship for another local printer, had established his own printing business. Mr. Morris and his backers contacted Mr. Zenger and thus the formation of the New-York Weekly Journal was underway. Once the Journal was published, readers found that the paper had mounted a bitter attack on governor Cosby, accusing him of seeking to destroy the provincial courts and of flouting both English and American law.
In 1734, Zenger was arrested on a charge of seditious libel. Although most of his backers and writers were probably responsible for the actual writing of the contested material, Zenger, as publisher, was held legally responsible for the paper's contents.
For ten month's, Zenger was held incommunicado. It was up to his wife to keep the paper going.. Brought to trial in 1735, he was defended brilliantly by Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia. Hamilton's argument was such that Zenger could not have committed seditious libel since the material he printed was, in fact, true. Although the court refused to accept the evidence that was submitted to prove the truth behind the contested articles, the jury was moved enough by Hamilton's defense and Zenger was acquitted. Within a couple of years, Zenger became public printer for New york and New Jersey.
While the Zenger case did not bring an immediate end to prosecutions for seditious libel, its historical significance cannot be over looked as an early milestone in the struggle for freedom of the press. Its main argument, that true statements could not be defined as libelous was and is still often cited.