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The Modern Zenger Trial: Can Truth Be Discriminatory?

The origins of freedom of the press in America can really be traced back to 1735 and the trial of John Peter Zenger.

Zenger, the editor of a small newspaper in colonial New York, regularly printing material derogatorily portraying royal governor William Crosby. For the crime of printing negative comments grounded in fact, Zenger was put on trial for treason.

Central to the trial was the question of whether the truth could be libelous. Under the standing law, the answer was, yes. But Zenger, with the help of his lawyer Andrew Hamilton, was acquitted, thus setting a precedent for press freedom that would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

Today, this case is significant not only as a hallmark for civil liberties, but because its precedent is being quickly eroded by evolving legal and cultural standards.

The question no longer revolves around whether the truth is libelous, but whether it is discriminatory. In the new political lexicon, discrimination is no longer a gauge for assessing the good, bad and mediocre, but a synonym for hatred and bigotry.

Obviously, the truth is discriminatory. It is a rejection of everything besides the basic laws of nature. But the empiricism of reality has become less important than the feelings and dignity of certain groups of people. This was behind the rationale of the Supreme Court majority in their Obergefell ruling. It is what drives the social justice agenda, with all its obsequious grovelling before “microaggressions” and “political correctness.”

Those who still cling to objective reality will recognize the same fascistic driving force behind this as was in the despotism of Crosby and his royal masters. Now, just as then, the adherents to an ideology that cannot survive on its own merits, must rely on force to bring others around to their way of thinking.

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Less than a week after the nation-wide legalization of same sex marriage, the ACLU has already withdrawn its support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, stating that it is too often used by Christians as a tool for discrimination. The pre-Obergefell record is one where Christian business owners being successfully sued for refusing services that directly contradict their beliefs, where gay hotel owners faced the threat of being boycotted for hosting an evangelical presidential candidate. Tt is not irrational to indulge in a bit of prognostication and foresee a future where merely to profess belief in certain values will make individuals targets, a la Zenger.

In his defense, Hamilton railed against holding speech hostage to the petty egos of governing officials:

But when a ruler of a people brings his personal failing, but much more his vices, into his administration, and the people find themselves affected by them either in their liberties or properties, that will alter the case mightily; and all the things that are said in favor of rulers and dignitaries, and upon the side of power, will not be able to stop the people’s mouths when they feel themselves oppressed.

Lest he too be accused of treason, he was forced to explain that by this he meant no criticism of the king.

Though it is not so much personal vices as ill-conceived notions of tolerance and dignity that stand a threat to the people, this is a reaction that is far too similar to what conservatives and Christians face for living their beliefs in the politically correct America of 2015.

History seems to be repeating itself, changing slightly of course to fit the exigent issues of the day. The only question is, will modern day Zengers stand up against the cultural gatekeepers?

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About Katherine Revello

A recent graduate of the University of Maine, where she majored in journalism and political science, Katherine Revello is an aspiring political commentator. Her focuses include theory, the philosophy of money and populism. Currently, she is a graduate student at Villanova University. She is the founder of The Politics of Discretion, a blog dedicated to advancing her philosophy of discretionism. Follow her on Twitter: @MrsWynandPapers