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Campbell: New York site is physical reminder of First Amendment freedoms

Published April 27, 2012 5:34 pm

Federal Hall • Zenger case was the birth of American free speech.
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New York

While police officers looked on, a small group of protesters calling for government reform and a general strike braved rain and wind Thursday afternoon on the steps of Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, once the site of the nation's capital.

Protesters seated on the stone steps may not have realized that what happened on this site nearly 300 years ago paved the way for them to peaceably assemble and openly criticize their government.

At the same time, most of the Wall Street brokers and bankers rushing by, with gadgets fixated on the latest news, did not understand that their right to access information also had roots in this place. The debates here over free speech and the press both provided and then galvanized a spark that led to American independence.

It is here, where an earlier New York City Hall once stood, that John Peter Zenger, a printer and a pioneer American newspaper publisher, was put on trial for criticizing New York's royal governor. Inside Federal Hall, there is an alcove dedicated to Zenger.

On display is a wooden printing press, a three-cornered hat, a multidrawer case designed to hold movable type and a pair of large-buckle shoes. In 1732, a tyrannical new governor, William Cosby, arrived in New York from Great Britain and soon decided he didn't like the salary the colonial council wanted to pay him. He also didn't like the rulings of the Supreme Court's chief justice, so he replaced a judge with one of his own liking.

Letters to Zenger's newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, using the pseudonym "Cato," took on Cosby's authoritarian rule. Cosby's government charged Zenger with sedition and criminal libel and threw him in jail. According to the English law of the day, truth was not a defense against "libelous" or "seditious" comments about public officials. However, a smart Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, took on the Zenger case in front of the judge Cosby had hand-picked.

As he sat in jail for eight months, Zenger become a cause célèbre. During the trial, the judge repeatedly rebuffed Hamilton's assertions that truth ought to be a defense against libel. However, Hamilton convinced a jury of his argument and set a precedent in American legal theory. Americans can thank the Zenger case for the seeds that planted the constitutional concept of a jury of one's peers and the First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of the press and speech in the minds of the nation's founders.

The Zenger trial also did something else. It started to galvanize Americans against heavy-handed English rule. A U.S. Constitution signatory, Gouverneur Morris, wrote, "The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America."

It is fitting that on Monday, the National Park Service at Federal Hall will mark 223 years since President George Washington delivered his first inauguration address here. They will undoubtedly remember the ratification here of the Bill of Rights in 1790, enshrining basic rights.

Federal Hall became a treasury building and customs house after the federal government moved to Washington, D.C. On Thursday, a National Park Service guide said if people have only a few minutes to tour the building, he always tells them the story of John Peter Zenger. That's a good call. It's a story all Americans should hear.

Joel Campbell is an associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University. His views do not represent those of BYU. He writes about First Amendment and open government issues for The Tribune.






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