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John Peter Zenger’s Trial

John Peter Zenger, a German-American publisher was accused of seditious libel for his criticism of a Colonial governor named William Cosby. (Gill 2007) The purpose of this paper is to address the limitations of the freedom of speech and the press especially against American colonists and how the trial contributed massively to this freedom. At the time, American colonists were not allowed to criticize their legislature in any way. If any of them attempted to do so, the perpetrators were charged with seditious libel. (Westermann and Schlesinger 2000) This was a law specifically created to silence any malicious statements about the hugely English governing body. Consequently, this law hushed the colonist’s voice and eliminated their freedom of press and speech. (Copeland 2000)

In the course of my research I found out that this trial was a great win in the battle for the preservation of the freedom of speech and the protection of a free press. It was however not solely responsible for molding Colonial America in the early to mid 18th century. (Scott 2010) The religious and cultural uprising termed the first Great Awakening also played a part. In addition, the verdict of “not guilty” set in motion monumental judicial and political changes in America. The first was the creation of a common law that protected free speech. The trial also contributed to the creation of the 1792 Fox Libel Act in England, which insists on the consideration of the truth and not just publication in cases involving seditious libel.(Rutherford and Zenger 2006)

In my opinion, this trial’s success marked the end of unlawful censorship in America. In addition, it laid the building stones for the development of the first amendment, the freedom of press, speech and assembly. This is one of the core principles that keep America both cultural and safe. One could even argue that the freedom of speech has led to a tolerant society, which is a better society.