Magazine article Natural History

The Printer's Trial: The Case of John Peter Zenger and the Fight for a Free Press

Magazine article Natural History

The Printer's Trial: The Case of John Peter Zenger and the Fight for a Free Press

Article excerpt

The Printer's Trial: The Case of John Peter Zenger and the Fight for a Free Press, by Gail Jarrow (Calkins Creek Books; $18.95)

One of the cornerstones of the American free press is the 1735 court case that first distinguished American from British libel law. In British law, anyone who printed criticisms of the government could be accused of seditious libel-whether the criticisms were true or false. In fact, writes Gail Jarrow, the libel was considered more serious if the published statements were true, for the perverse reason that readers would be more likely to believe them.

The case in question opened when the British colonial government arrested a barely literate printer named John Peter Zenger for printing anonymous attacks on William Cosby, the lavishly corrupt British governor of New York and New Jersey. Zenger was charged, even though he didn't write the attacks, because he was the only one who could be identified. …

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