The Birth of Press Freedom

One Nation With News for All

The John Peter Zenger story as it appears in “One Nation With News for All.”

German immigrant John Peter Zenger became a free-press hero before there was a First Amendment. On Nov. 17, 1734, the newspaper publisher was jailed for printing truthful articles in his New-York Weekly Journal accusing British Colonial governor William Cosby of being corrupt. Zenger’s wife, Anna, kept the newspaper going. At his trial, Zenger’s lawyer argued that every man must be free to “speak and write” the truth. The governor’s hand-picked jury agreed. Zenger was acquitted in 1735. The landmark case was a ringing endorsement for press freedom and established truth as a defense against libel.

Visitors can learn more about Zenger’s role in the birth of press freedom in “One Nation With News for All,” an exhibit in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Our American project, which tells the story of how immigrants and minorities used the power of the press to shape the American experience.

The Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery puts each of the five freedoms of the First Amendment — press, speech, religion, assembly and petition — in historical context, and provides perspective on what they mean to us more than 200 years later.

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