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This Week in History:
Freedom of the Press — July 29 - August 4, 1735

July 2010

Freedom of speech to tell the truth in 2009.

This week we choose to go back to 1735, the year in which the nascent United States (then still 13 colonies) established a principle which most Americans have come to take for granted. That principle is that truth is a defense against the charge of criminal, or seditious, libel.

The case in question is that of John Peter Zenger, a printer in the colony of New York. There is a room named after Zenger at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., because some people indeed do understand the significance of his action. Zenger published what we would today call an "exposé" on the colonial Governor of New York in his New York Weekly Journal, and was thrown in jail as a result. The charge against him was seditious libel.

Zenger had known that this might happen. Under the oligarchical tradition which reigned in England, as on the European continent, the publication of damaging material against a representative of the monarchy was a violation of the principle of lèse majesté. If the monarchy objected, the publisher could be thrown in prison. What about the question of whether the publisher were telling the truth, or a lie? That was settled also. According to the feudal lèse majesté dictum, the more true the damaging statements were, the greater the crime!

What Peter Zenger sought to assert went to the heart of the matter. Zenger, and his lawyer, argued that truth was a defense against the charge of libel. And a jury of his peers agreed with him, establishing once and for all the "truth defense."

What the Zenger case did was truly revolutionary, and set a precedent for the republican standard throughout the colonies. The same principle did not prevail in England for decades more—and still is inoperative in parts of Europe today. In Germany, for example, it is impossible (that is, illegal) to publicly accuse someone of being a "Nazi," even if the content of the charge can be thoroughly proven. "The greater the truth, the greater the libel," still rules there.


This article was originally published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

Related pages:

This Week in American History (main page)

Image of the American Patriot

Education, Science and Poetry

The Four Powers Alliance