A New York printer whose 1735 acquittal in a libel trial — and the precedent the case set — led to a recent victory closer to home for a local eighth-grader.
Pine-Richland Middle School student Joseph Mullen's history paper about the trial of John Peter Zenger won a first-place award in the National History Day in Pennsylvania contest. The paper, titled “The Advent of the Free Press,” finished atop the Junior Individual Paper category for grades six through eight.
“I was kind of surprised, excited .... but, I mean, I put a lot of work into it,” said Joseph, 14, a Pine resident.
He and 62 other first- or second-place winners were chosen from among 766 students, some of whom competed in groups, to compete nationally at the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland from June 9-13.
Students compete in one of 18 categories.
Founded in 1974, National History Day is a yearlong program in which sixth- through 12th-grade students study and interpret historical topics. Students produce performances, exhibits, multimedia documentaries, websites and research papers based on research related to an annual theme.
Of the more than 11,900 Pennsylvania students who participated this year, about 6,000 competed regionally, said Jeffrey Hawks, state coordinator for National History Day in Pennsylvania.
A record number of students, 2,876, will compete in the national contest, said Kim Fortney, deputy director of National History Day Inc. Winners will receive medals and monetary awards ranging from $250 to $5,000, depending on the grade division and award placement.
Joseph, whose paper placed third at the regional competition at the Heinz History Center in March, found that Zenger's trial clearly illustrated the 2013 contest's theme, “Turning Points in History.”
“I just think that it happened in the 1730s way before the Revolutionary War. And I just think how freedom of the press and freedom of speech came through that early before they even made the Constitution and before we even became a country,” Joseph said.
In 1734, Zenger was arrested for seditious libel after his newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, publishing attacks against Gov. William Cosby. At Zenger's trial, his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, argued that the “truth is a defense against libel.”
Not only was Zenger found not guilty, but his trial helped to further the cause for American independence from Britain and helped to pave the way for the First Amendment, which protects the right to freedom of religion and expression, according to the Federal Hall National Memorial's website.
“Hamilton's crafty choice of emotional analogies, the jury of Zenger's peers, and the inexperience of Judge De Lancey were the perfect concoction that unexpectedly introduced a right, the freedom of the press, which would become a central principle of American democracy,” Joseph wrote in his paper.
Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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