John Peter Zenger and the Value of a Free Press

These days it often feels like journalists are under attack just for doing their jobs. Some people in politics have even called the press “enemies of the people,” reminiscent of Soviet accusations during the Cold War.

Unsurprisingly, governmental problems with the press are not new. Because of that, I wanted to do a quick blog post today about the trial of publisher John Peter Zenger in New York in 1735. You can read more about the trial here. (In full disclosure, my quotations come from a document reader, but I’m fairly certain they’re borrowed directly from the document I linked.)

The trial centered around a charge of libel against Zenger, and the judge claimed that Zenger had “a reputation as a printer and publisher of false news that wickedly and maliciously criticize the government of our said Lord the King.” But did he commit libel?

Modern definitions of libel center on two central ideas: (1) the printed material is false, and (2) the printed material has caused some sort of quantifiable harm to its target. Interestingly, early 18th-century law was not quite as settled, and perhaps merely criticizing an elected official could be considered libel and a punishable offense. 

Zenger quickly admitted that he had printed and published the newspaper, but said that he was worried the colony of New York’s “LIBERTIES AND PROPERTIES” were endangered with “slavery”—men had their deeds destroyed, new courts were set up without legislative consent, trials by jury were taken away, the governor had deprived men of property of their votes, etc. (or so he claimed).

The prosecution asserted this meant Zenger was clearly guilty, because “nothing is plainer, than the words in the charge are scandalous, seditious, and tend to disturb the minds of the people of the Colony.” The court case, therefore, centered around what the word “libel” truly meant. Zenger’s lawyer insisted that something had to be untrue to be libel, while the prosecution countered, “a libel is nevertheless a libel whether it is true or not.”

Zenger saw himself as having a responsibility to protecting common people from governmental officials who might abuse their power. His defense centered on the notion that “while we pay all due obedience to men in authority we ought at the same time to be upon our guard against how they use that power. Men who oppress the people under their government force them to cry out and complain and then make that very complaint the foundation for new oppressions, and prosecutions.”

The judge, however, countered, “nothing can be worse to any government than to have people attempt to create distrust and dislike of the management of it. This has always been looked upon as a crime, and no government can be safe without punishing those who attempt to create distrust or dislike of it.”

Luckily for us, the jury sided with Zenger, declaring him “not guilty” of seditious libel. The jury helped establish our modern view of libel that it indeed must involve some sort of falsehood. Because of that, we still have ideals of a free and independent press in the United States. Far from being the “enemy of the people,” our press is in fact central to the liberties that we hold dear in the United States, and essential to maintaining our democracy and holding our elected officials and business leaders accountable for their actions.