A Zenger In Sunnyside
February 29, 2012 Leave a comment
Recently, a very fine fellow made a very fine suggestion. Let’s have everybody show respect for each other.
It is a very fine suggestion, and all is fine with adopting it. We SHOULD all show respect for each other. However, I could not quite bring myself to join in the erstwhile enthusiasm of my colleagues, for you see, this kind of suggestion is more symbolism than substance.
While I agree that everyone should be shown courtesy and respect, it is an unfortunate reality that even the loftiest of sentiments can be used to take away the liberties of our citizens.
Over 150 years before Sunnyside became a city, our country was faced with a situation where a man named Zenger said some rather unflattering things about a local government official.
The official in question, William Cosby, was the governor of the colony of New York. Among his dubious actions, he sought to raise his own salary in an unsavory way. When the courts expressed concern on the legality of his actions, he removed the chief judge and appointed one of his buddies to the position. When a local newspaper, published by John Peter Zenger, said disrespectful things about the government official, Zenger was brought up on charges.
In a case of great renown, a jury refused to convict Zenger for telling the truth. Zenger was accused of:
“being a seditious person and a frequent printer and publisher of false news and seditious libels” had “wickedly and maliciously” devised to “traduce, scandalize, and vilify” Governor Cosby and his ministers. Bradley said that “Libeling has always been discouraged as a thing that tends to create differences among men, ill blood among the people, and oftentimes great bloodshed between the party libeling and the party libeled.” *
As students of history know, this landmark case helped establish freedom of the press in colonial America, and later in the United States. Zenger was not convicted for the simple fact that he told the truth.
In our local community, I have seen government officials cringe at the sight of criticism. Our community is well served by its respectful citizenry, even when they dare criticize their local officials. Our citizens are responsible enough to accept accountability for their utterances (whether respectful or not), and if truthful, will be defended by this author.
It is ironic that the values decided in this case decided nearly 276 years ago are not now well known. In showing respect, we should also acknowledge the truth. Or put another way, is it disrespectful to tell the truth?