The Trial of John Peter Zenger, 1735
Americans have grown accustomed to seeing media accounts critical of government and government officials on all levels. From the presidency down to local commissioners, reporters and letter-to-the-editor writers complain about what officials do. In colonial America, objections against government occurred, but they were illegal. Americans operated under British law, under which criticism of the government or any of its officials was a crime. It did not matter if what one said was true, the statement was considered seditious libel, or criticism of the government, and it was grounds for arrest.
On November 17, 1734, New York printer John Peter Zenger discovered exactly how the seditious libel laws worked. He was arrested by the sheriff for publishing articles that criticized New York's royal officials for the way in which they were running the colony. The printer was charged with sedition, inflaming the people, and being in contempt of the government. The next day, Zenger newspaper, the New-York Weekly Journal, did not appear as it had regularly for a year. Although most of New York City's approximately 7,000 residents no doubt already knew about the arrest, Zenger informed his readers of it in the next edition of the Weekly Journal. He also noted that the current issue was courtesy of his wife, Anna, who talked to her husband "through the Hole of the Door" in his cell.1
Zenger continued to talk to his wife through the hole in the door for months because his bail was set at £600, an amount too high for the immigrant printer to pay. Zenger's backers could have paid the money