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    My screen name comes from John Peter Zenger. His case is very similar in many ways to Siegelman's.

    In 1735, Zenger was a publisher of a brand new newspaper that printed articles that mocked the Royal Governor of New York. Among other charges, the articles accurately accused the Governor of replacing the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court judge with the Governor's buddy in a case in which the Governor tried to extort money from his predecessor. The articles also accused the Royal Governor of conspiring to defeat a populist running in the State Assembly by finding a technicality to disqualify voters who were Quakers. (some things never change).

    The Governor had three different grand juries convened to indict Zenger for seditious libel, but they each refused. The Governor then ordered the public burning of all of the newspapers. He ordered his Attorney General to prosecute Zenger under a technical procedure that did not require a grand jury. Zenger was imprisoned with bail set at a huge amount.

    Zenger's wife took over the printing of the newspaper, and used it to raise public awareness of the situation.

    Zenger was accused of printing false, scandalous, and defamatory articles that tended to bring the governor into disrepute. The case was tried before the Chief Justice - who was the Governor's recently installed buddy, as well as another judge hand-picked by the Governor. When Zenger's two attorneys questioned the impartiality of the judge, the Chief Justice disbarred them. A new attorney volunteered his services, Andrew Hamilton.

    Hamilton concentrated his efforts on the fact that the articles were true, although the judges ruled the truth was irrelevant. Hamilton argued that there was an American ideal that the people had the right to publish the truth about government officials, even though it was contrary to British law. Hamilton said the law should not prohibit "the just complaints of a number of men who suffer under a bad administration."

    The Chief Justice instructed the jurors to only consider whether Zenger published the articles, and since he did, they must say guilty. The Chief Justice threatened the jury with prison if they did not follow his orders. Hamilton convinced the jurors to follow their conscience and their sense of justice. To the cheers of the crowd, the jury quickly came back with a verdict of not guilty.

    Here is an excerpt of Andrew Hamilton's closing argument:

    "Men ...have a right publicly to remonstrate against the abuses of power in the strongest terms, to put their neighbors upon their guard against the craft or open violence of men in authority, and to assert with courage the sense they have of the blessings of liberty, the value they put upon it, and their resolution at all hazards to preserve it as one of the greatest blessings heaven can bestow....

    The loss of liberty, to a generous mind, is worse than death. And yet we know that there have been those in all ages who for the sake of preferment, or some imaginary honor, have freely lent a helping hand to oppress, nay to destroy, their country.... This is what every man who values freedom ought to consider...

    Power may justly be compared to a great river. While kept within its due bounds it is both beautiful and useful. But when it overflows its banks, it is then too impetuous to be stemmed; it bears down all before it, and brings destruction and desolation wherever it comes. If, then, this is the nature of power, let us at least do our duty, and like wise men who value freedom use our utmost care to support liberty, the only bulwark against lawless power, which in all ages has sacrificed to its wild lust and boundless ambition the blood of the best men that ever lived....

    ...The question before ... jury not the cause of one poor printer ... It may in its consequence affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty. And I make no doubt but your upright conduct this day will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow citizens, but every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempt of tyranny, and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right to liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world at least) by speaking and writing truth."

    JPZenger was a newspaper publisher whose jury trial in the 1730s for seditious libel helped establish the freedom to criticize top government officials.

    by JPZenger on Fri Feb 22, 2008 at 08:55:37 AM PST

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