If one examines the First Amendment carefully, they will notice that it does not say anything in regards to what a person can or cannot do, rather it describes the limitations on Congress. This is very important to remember. The Constitution was not created to limit the freedoms of the citizenry, rather, it was created to restrain government. The First Amendment, and really the whole Bill of Rights, serves only as a declaration that Congress has not been vested with power over the basic freedoms that were endowed by our creator.
We often hear that our rights come from God, but what does that really mean? Why would God grant us these freedoms? The Bible is rife with scriptures that explicitly tell us there is only one God. God bestowed certain inalienable rights upon mankind so that men would not lord over other men, thereby taking the rightful place of God:
"And God spoke all these words: 'I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me....You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God...'" (Exodus 20: 1-5).
So the Constitution was written to keep kings and tyrants who seek to control people out of America. However, as Mr. Obama so eloquently reminded us this week, "while these truths may be self-evident, they've never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth." In other words, some level of government is absolutely necessary. Be that as it may, this nation was founded on the principle that government should have as little impact on the citizenry as possible, a far cry from what it has become.
A common misinterpretation today is that freedom of speech and press exists for the purpose of expressing individuality. The First Amendment was written in the context of protecting political speech and activities from government interference. In England, as well as in the colonies before our independence, it was dangerous to criticize government, or peaceably assemble or petition government for redress of grievances because anything one might say or write could end up being used against them under the charge of seditious libel, regardless of whether or not what they asserted was true. “It was not to be permitted to any man to make the people dissatisfied with the government under which he lives.”
The landmark case, or basis for this facet of the First Amendment, was the trial of a German-American printer named John Peter Zenger, in 1735. Zenger was charged with seditious libel for publicizing the misadventures of then-Governor William Cosby.
Cosby was a Brit who had been appointed by King George II as "Captain General and Governor in Chief" of New York and the surrounding territories in 1732. Cosby had a penchant for power and a history of abusing his authority. He assumed that because he had been appointed governor he could do as he pleased. Upon arriving to the colony in 1733, he demanded over half of the salary of the man who had served as interim governor for the year between Cosby's appointment and his arrival. Cosby's greed-fueled attempt to seize another man's rightfully earned property set off a firestorm of opposition. The governor took the case to the courts but, knowing that he had no chance of winning if the decision were left up to a jury, he designated the provincial Supreme Court to hear his case as a "Court of Exchequer" (without jury). The court upheld Cosby's action by a 2-to-1 vote. In his arrogance, Cosby wrote to the dissenting judge demanding that he explain his vote. The chief justice complied by having Zenger print his explanation in a pamphlet that was distributed throughout the colony. Cosby was furious. He removed the judge and, in doing so, further fueled the opposition.
Sensing that he was losing his grip on the people, Cosby hired a stooge to become censor and editor of the only established newspaper in New York. Francis Harison defended Cosby vociferously; in 1734 he published this little nugget of objective journalism:
"Cosby the mild, the happy, good and great,
The strongest guard of our little state;
Let the malcontents in crabbed language write,
And they.....belch, tho' they cannot bite.
He unconcerned will let the wretches roar,
And govern just, as others did before."
No doubt Harison would fit in well with today's mainstream media; however, not everyone felt a thrill up their leg when it came to Cosby. James Alexander, head of the opposition, founded an independent political newspaper to expose the lies and propaganda that Harison was spreading. He contracted Zenger as the pressman. Cosby no longer controlled the news. Alexander began to realize the importance of a free press:
"The loss of liberty in general would soon follow the suppression of the liberty of the press; for it is an essential branch of liberty, so perhaps it is the best preservative of the whole. Even a restraint of the press would have a fatal influence. No nation, ancient or modern, has ever lost the liberty of freely speaking, writing or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves."
Like squeezing dough, the more Cosby tried to tighten his grip, the more the opposition grew. He tried rigging elections and other devious methods of eliminating dissent, all of which were printed by Zenger. Cosby would not long suffer these attacks; after two months he asked a grand jury to issue indictments based on the law of seditious libel. Zenger was arrested and sent to jail, where he would stay for eight months during his trial. An exorbitant bail was set to ensure that he would not get out before the trial. This only served as a tactical advantage, garnering public sympathy and support.
During the trial, the defense could not argue on the basis that what Zenger printed was the truth. Truth was no defense for libel, jurors were instructed to assign guilt or innocence by determining if the defendant printed the seditious literature. Instead, they argued that the King's law had no place in this new land. Ignoring orders from the judge, the jury found Zenger "not guilty." The decision set the precedence for generations to come.
One of the principle drafters of the Constitution went on to write about the Zenger case: "The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America."