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John Peter Zenger

Today is the anniversary of the verdict in the trial of John Peter Zenger, considered by many the germ of our right to freedom of speech.

The outcome of the trial hinged on the (today) little-known principle of Jury Nullification. The jury's verdict of “not guilty”, against the judge's instructions, effectively nullified the application of the English seditious libel laws in the Colonies, paving the way for our freedom of the press.

[On a personal note, Lewis Morris, who was removed from the case by the royal governor, is an ancestor of my spouse. His great-grandson, Gouvenor Morris, penned the preamble to the constitution and noted the influence of the Zenger trial on our first amendment: “The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”

[A full account of the trial by Douglas Linder, Professor of Law at University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School is available at Zenger Trial.]