More than 40 years before America's Declaration of Independence, more than 50 years before our Constitution was adopted or the Bill of Rights amended it, there was freedom of the press.
Some freedoms are granted and others are won.
More than 40 years before America's Declaration of Independence, more than 50 years before our constitution was adopted or the Bill of Rights amended it, there was freedom of the press.
During this week in 1735, a jury in New York returned a not guilty verdict that became the foremost precedent in libel law. That jury - despite pressure from the colonial magistrates and governor refused to convict publisher John Peter Zenger of seditious libel. Truth, they ruled, was a satisfactory defense.
Looking back, it's easy to see how this became a seminal case.
A newly appointed colonial governor was arguing for a pay raise for himself. Zenger and some of his financial and political backers disagreed with this idea and other policies put forth by the new governor.
The weekly Gazette merely reported the news. But Zenger's Weekly Journal was supported by members of the popular party, and he ran articles authored by himself and other party members who disagreed with policies of the government.
On Nov. 17, 1734, Zenger was arrested for seditious libel. He was jailed for almost eight months while the governor replaced judges who didn't agree with him and disbarred several attorneys who tried to offer legal assistance to Zenger.
Enter Andrew Hamilton, attorney general for Pennsylvania.
Hamilton made the case that speech is not libelous - although defamatory - if what is said is true.
Hamilton argued that, "the press has a liberty both of exposing and opposing tyrannical power by speaking and writing truth."
The jury agreed.
So after serving eight months in jail for espousing his beliefs and pointing out the deleterious actions of his government, Zenger was freed - and free to publish.
The press has no power granted to it other than to operate unencumbered by those to whom power is granted.
But the freedom to reveal the truth puts an additional check on the government's checks and balances.
That jury spoke clearly when they ruled that publishers had a right to inform the public about government action and even include their own opinions and the opinions of others about those actions.
The First Amendment codified the right to freedom of the press. But precedent had established its existence years before.