Humanities › History & Culture The John Peter Zenger Trial This case helped set the idea of freedom of the press Share Flipboard Email Print The trial of Peter Zenger in New York, 1734. The printer of the New York Weekly Journal was accused of libel. Defended by Andrew Hamilton, he was acquitted and this precedent established freedom of the press in the United States. Undated engraving. Bettmann / Getty Images History & Culture American History Basics Important Historical Figures Key Events U.S. Presidents Native American History American Revolution America Moves Westward The Gilded Age Crimes & Disasters The Most Important Inventions of the Industrial Revolution African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Inventions Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Martin Kelly History Expert M.A., History, University of Florida B.A., History, University of Florida Martin Kelly, M.A., is a history teacher and curriculum developer. He is the author of "The Everything American Presidents Book" and "Colonial Life: Government." our editorial process Martin Kelly Updated September 01, 2018 John Peter Zenger was born in Germany in 1697. He immigrated to New York with his family in 1710. His father died during the voyage, and his mother, Joanna, was left to support him and his two siblings. At the age of 13, Zenger was apprenticed for eight years to the prominent printer William Bradford who is known as the "pioneer printer of the middle colonies." They would form a brief partnership after the apprenticeship before Zenger decided to open his own printing shop in 1726. When Zenger would be later brought to trial, Bradford would remain neutral in the case. Zenger Approached by Former Chief Justice Zenger was approached by Lewis Morris, a chief justice who had been removed from the bench by Governor William Cosby after he ruled against him. Morris and his associates created the “Popular Party” in opposition to Governor Cosby and needed a newspaper to help them spread the word. Zenger agreed to print their paper as the New York Weekly Journal. Zenger Arrested for Seditious Libel At first, the governor ignored the newspaper which made claims against the governor including his having arbitrarily removed and appointed judges without consulting the legislature. However, once the paper began to grow in popularity, he decided to put a stop to it. Zenger was arrested and a formal charge of seditious libel was made against him on November 17, 1734. Unlike today where libel is only proven when the published information is not only false but intended to harm the individual, libel at this time was defined as holding the king or his agents up to public ridicule. It did not matter how true the printed information was. Despite the charge, the governor was unable to sway a grand jury. Instead, Zenger was arrested based on prosecutors’ “information,” a way to circumvent the grand jury. Zenger's case was taken before a jury. Zenger Defended by Andrew Hamilton Zenger was defended by Andrew Hamilton, a Scottish lawyer who would eventually settle in Pennsylvania. He was not related to Alexander Hamilton. However, he was important in later Pennsylvania history, having helped design Independence Hall. Hamilton took the case on pro bono. Zenger's original lawyers had been stricken from the attorney's list due to the corruption that surrounded the case. Hamilton was able to successfully argue to the jury that Zenger was allowed to print things as long as they were true. In fact, when he was not allowed to prove that the claims were true through evidence, he was able to eloquently argue to the jury that they saw the evidence in their everyday lives and therefore didn't need additional proof. Results of the Zenger Case The result of the case did not create a legal precedent because a jury’s verdict does not change the law. However, it had a huge impact on the colonists who saw the importance of a free press to hold the government power in check. Hamilton was lauded by New York colonial leaders for his successful defense of Zenger. Nonetheless, individuals would continue to be punished for publishing information harmful to the government until state constitutions and later the US Constitution in the Bill of Rights would guarantee a free press. Zenger continued to publish the New York Weekly Journal until his death in 1746. His wife continued to publish the paper after his death. When his eldest son, John, took over the business he only continued to publish the paper for three more years.