Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
By creating the “Disinformation Governance Board” the Biden administration has taken a long step backward to seventeenth century England when freedom of press and speech did not exist. Are we on the verge of resurrecting the ancient charge of “seditious libel” where even truth is libelous and punishable as the cancel culture has ably demonstrated?
It was not by accident that the first amendment guarantees freedom of speech and “the free exercise of religion” as both marched together on the road to greater liberty in the English-Speaking world. Seventeenth century poet John Milton’s pamphlet “Aeropagitica”1644), argued against censorship and prior licensing on the grounds that men could decide between truth and error for themselves, this at a time of intense religious ferment and the English Civil War which pitched Puritans against the crown and the established Anglican Church. The Puritans though were not friends of religious freedom. That notion was a product of the fertile mind of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and “the Providence Plantations”. For men like Milton and Williams truth was a product of discussion and examination. The march to free speech was to be long and arduous, however.
In the history books the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, Crown v. Zenger, Andrew Hamilton for the defense, is the birth of a free press. Zenger printed the New York Weekly Journal whose editor James Alexander, an opponent of royal governor William Cosby, accused the governor of being a tyrant who violated New Yorker’s rights. Zenger was charged with seditious libel for printing Alexander’s accusations. Is the Biden administration following in Gov. Cosby’s footsteps by declaring free speech “disinformation”? Listening to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ testimony before the House and then “Minister of Truth” Nina Jankowicz’s tweet, “I shudder to think about if free speech absolutists were taking over more platforms” one must begin to think so.
When two grand juries refused to indict Zenger, Cosby issued an information as an alternative method by which to charge him. Zenger was hauled off to jail where unable to meet an impossibly high bail he languished in his cell until his trial, presided over by James De Lancy, Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, a Cosby ally. That Zenger could be printing the truth was, by law, legally irrelevant to the charge of seditious libel, just as truth is irrelevant to today’s cancel culture. In the Zenger trial Hamilton, however, carried the day. He argued that liberty itself was at stake, that if what Zenger printed was true it could not be a libel. The jury acquitted, but it would be decades before the principle Hamilton had expounded would be settled law.
Even after the constitution was ratified freedom of the press did not immunize against libel under Common Law. By and large, however, the press exercised freedom of expression even under the threat of prosecution. It would not be until 1805, however, that the principle of the Zenger case was firmly established.
That principle is now under threat from an administration that regards criticism as “disinformation” and critics as seditious “extremists”. If the Disinformation Governance Board establishes itself and like any bureaucracy expands its reach, how long can freedom of speech survive? Will there arise a new John Peter Zenger or Andrew Hamilton? Let’s not find out, disband the board now.
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