The First Amendment of the American Constitution, a wonderfully loaded sentence, protects the voice of the American press from undue tyranny and censorship: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
These protections were extremely important to the Founding Fathers, many of whom were former publishers themselves, including the most famous man at the signing — Benjamin Franklin.
By 1735, Franklin (who was not even 30 years old) was producing both the Pennsylvania Gazette and the wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanack. It was in that year that Franklin observed a fellow publisher from the colony of New York experience a vicious legal challenge by the colonial governor, a challenge that threatened to undermine the basic liberties of truth and personal expression.
That fellow publisher was named John Peter Zenger.
His story was well-known to the framers of the Constitution and his spirit hangs over those important words contained in the First Amendment. Thanks to this German New Yorker and his four-page newspaper called the New York Weekly Journal, Americans today enjoy a robust Fourth Estate, capable (in the right hands) of revealing this country’s essential truths and alerting its citizens to the corruption, malfeasance and wrong-doing of its government.
Zenger’s newspaper would call to question the actions of New York’s governor, a virtual despot named William Cosby (at right), and in so doing, set in motion an historic trial that marked a triumph for liberty and modern democratic rights, including freedom of the press and the power of jury nullification.
This entire story takes place in lower Manhattan, and most of it on a couple floors of old New York City Hall at Wall Street and Nassau Street. Many years later, this spot would see the first American government and the inauguration of George Washington.
Top image courtesy Museum of the City of New York