What If? History Benchmark: Changing Free Press

In 1733, German-American printer named John Peter Zenger accepted an offer from James Alexander to publish his editorials criticizing New York's governor at the time. Alexander founded the New York Weekly Journal and published the first issue in November of 1733. The Governor being criticized went by the name William Cosby. Cosby attempted to have the publication shut down several times with the court's help, but eventually put out a 50 pound reward to the person that could identify the authors of the editorials and order Zenger's papers to be burned publicly. With the help of his attorney general Cosby issued a warrant for Zenger's arrest. Zenger spent 8 months in jail. Cosby attempted to select jurors himself, but that was dismissed and twelve townspeople were picked. 

The trial began in August of 1735 on the terms that the paper was producing "seditious libel". It was true that Andrew Hamilton, of Philadelphia, Zenger's lawyer had no law to support his idea that the truth could be defensive for a libel charge. The trial could be said to have been the most famous 'jury nullification' in history, which means a jury has the power to serve  verdict of 'not guilty' because the disagree with the current law rather than actually believe the person is not guilty. Needless to say, the jury did not make a judgement on the existing law or the facts, but what they thought of the law itself. This is thought to be the building blocks for Free Press in the Bill of Rights.

My point of divergence is that the jury does rule a guilty verdict and the existing British law is not challenged. 

I liked being able to pick something I was interested in. I had the freedom to choose  a topic that conceded my because I am a journalist. The whole project was interesting in that way, but the jury nullification is what I find interesting. As well as the fact that Zenger was just the publisher when we never wrote a single word. He did not set out to be a champion of free speech, but simply a printer doing his thing. 

The individuals in this situation seem to make the impact but it is really the individuals joining together as the jury and as the public in a print protest of the power they disagreed with. Free Press is a systemic change. If this was the only thing to be changed, I believe someone or some people would have eventually made free press happen but countless other things would have been affected in the mean time. 

The resonating changed I thought about was elections. If press were not able to use their privilege of reporting facts, even when unpleasant the results of many elections could have changed. 

If this project could have been improved it would have been to find more sources. It was very difficult to locate primary sources from the 1730's. Honestly, if I had more evidence I could have used more. 

If I could do it over, I would have done even more. I like the idea of the magazine, but there isn't much content. Because I am a journalist I didn't like feeling as if the project was only half done with a single photo, article and cartoon. ​