I did something cool back in January. Working with my head of school and our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, I organized a new literacy panel featuring three local journalists for my seventh graders, all of whom take a semester long library class with me that meets 45 minutes a week. The panel featured journalists from three different news formats: Akili Franklin, a Metairie Park Country Day alum and current News Director at WDSU, represented television. Peter Kovacs, Editor of The Advocate, represented newspapers, and Laine Kaplan-Levenson, Producer and podcast host at NPR affiliate WWNO, represented radio. If you haven’t listened to Laine’s podcasts Tripod: New Orleans at 300 and Stickey Wicket, do yourself a favor. They are great podcasts to share with students.
I went into Richard Kluger’s book, Indelible Ink: The Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America’s Free Press, thinking I was in for a First Amendment origin story. The heroic struggle for free speech. Humble colonial printers pushing back on the crown’s policy of forbidding seditious libel. I got an origin story, but not the one I went looking for. I was expecting a triumphant little-guy story, that feel when you watch a movie like Rudy. Instead I felt like you do after watching Dangerous Liaisons, scandalized and a little sad.
Kluger gives us an account of the trial and ultimate acquittal of John Peter Zenger, printer of the New-York Weekly Journal, who was accused of seditious libel by then governor William Cosby. The colonies had never seen a trial or verdict like this before. The year was 1735. Not long before in England, it was illegal to print anything negative about those in power, whether or not one was printing the truth. The very suggestion of weakness in the ruling class could threaten faith in the social order, and the ruling class wouldn’t allow it. Printing anything even remotely seditious could lead to jail time, the loss of an ear, even death.