A colonial-era newspaper publisher in New York City, John Peter Zenger (1697-1746), helped create the American concept of freedom of the press by successfully defending himself against a libel accusation in 1735.
Born in Germany, Zenger came to New York City with his family as a child. His parents apprenticed him to a well-known printer, where he learned to operate presses. In 1733, after finishing his apprenticeship, he started his own newspaper, the New-York Weekly Journal.
Like many early American newspapers, the Journal was openly partisan. Its mission, Zerger proclaimed in the first issue, was to be a platform for invective against the British-appointed governor, William Cosby (c. 1960-1736).
Cosby, an aristocrat who was widely disliked in New York, was not amused. After Zenger printed some particularly critical articles and poems, Cosby ordered him arrested. Zenger continued to publish the newspaper from behind bars for ten months by passing instructions to his wife during prison visits.
At trial, Zenger was represented at no charge by a well-known Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton (1676-1741). The jurors faced enormous pressure from the government – and from the Cosby-appointed judge – to return a guilty verdict. But in a much-acclaimed argument to the jury, Hamilton convinced jurors that since the law was unjust, they should acquit Zerger despite the judge’s instructions.
By the end of the trial, Zenger had won the sympathy of many New Yorkers, and the memory of his trial helped inspire the First Amendment to the Constitution protecting free speech fifty years later.
The jurors depended on the controversial concept of “jury nullification,” by which juries can choose not to enforce laws they consider unjust, to acquit Zenger. Although rarely used, American juries still have this prerogative.