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Political History: The Trials of the Millenium

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JPZenger Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Apr-07-04 05:02 PM
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Political History: The Trials of the Millenium
Two Trials of the Millenium : John Peter Zenger and William Penn

Zenger was a poor immigrant who started a newspaper in New York. His Majesty's Royal Governor for New York, William Cosby, was a corrupt and dictatorial ruler. For example, when the State Supreme Court wouldn't follow his orders, he threw the Chief Justice out of office and replaced him with a crony.

Zenger's newspaper started to attack the Governor and his cronies with a mix of serious articles and satire. When the Governor named a new sheriff notorious being pompous wearing flamboyant uniforms, Zenger printed an ad for a lost monkey whose clothes were remarkably like those worn by the new sheriff. Zenger also reported dictatorial acts of the Governor side-by-side with essays on the nature of tyranny.

The laws of New York required prior government approval for publications about Royal officials. In 1734, the Governor had Zenger arrested for "seditious libel." Under the law, seditious libel meant that his writings encourage contempt for the government. The truthfulness of his articles were irrelevant under the law.

Zenger refused to pay bail and remained in jail for nine months. But he didn't stop writing. He dictated stories for his newspaper through the hole in the door of his cell. He informed his readers:

"I hope for the future by the liberty of speaking . . . through the hole of the door of the prison, to entertain you with my Weekly Journal as formerly and am your obliged humble servant."

Zenger's defense was that he had only written the truth. But the judge stopped the argument of Zenger's lawyer, saying that the court could not admit the "the truth of a libel in evidence." The judge instructed the jury that truth makes the libel more vicious. This is because there is more likely to be public unrest if the public understands that claims of bad government are true.

The Judge said that because Zenger had admitted he was responsible for the articles, the jury's only job was to follow a simple question of law to convict him. Therefore, the Judge instructed the jury to find Zenger guilty.

But his lawyer turned to the jury and said this was:

"Not the cause of the poor printer.. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty . . . . of exposing and opposing arbitrary power and speaking and writing Truth."

It took the jury only 10 minutes to find Zenger not guilty. The case established the basic principle that the Truth was a proper defense and that a jury had the right to decide what is true. The case was critical in establishing the Freedom of Speech and the Freedom of the Press.

When the verdict was announced, according to one report, The roar of the crowd seemed to shake the courtroom. Vainly the angry judge rapped for order The waiting people outside in Wall St shouted their joy. Broadway answered with resounding cheers. Accounts of the verdict spread throughout the colonies and laid the foundation for the American Revolution.

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In 1670 in England, William Penn had been preaching in public, based upon his Quaker religion. This was a violation of the law - there was only one recognized religion in England at the time - the Anglican church.

William Penn was arrested and went to trial. The jury recognized that Penn was technically guilty, but found him not guilty because the law was unjust.

The judge, not liking the verdict, fined the jurors until they would reverse their decision. The jury refused to pay the fine. The judge put the jurors in prison with little food or heat. Two months later, the Chief Justice ruled that jurors could not be coerced in rendering a verdict. The jurors were freed and William Penn was acquitted.

This case was critical in establishing the Freedom of Religion, which was the primary principle behind Penn's establishment of Pennsylvania.
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