John Peter Zenger spent months in a jail cell accused of libel.
The German immigrant and printer of the New York Weekly Journal had published critiques of the state’s colonial governor. While he was locked away his wife Anna, the first woman printer and publisher in the colonies, kept the paper’s presses going.
“We will fight with words and facts to make sure every citizen can speak and write the truth!”
— John Peter Zenger, American printer, writer
It was the 1730s and the story of a newspaper and its printer making a brave stand for press rights unfolded decades before the First Amendment. At the time, Zenger wrote: “We will fight with words and facts to make sure every citizen can speak and write the truth!”
When Zenger was acquitted, he became a symbol for press freedom and the trial laid the groundwork for what would later become the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.
“That moment explains the whole First Amendment, the birth of the First Amendment, how important and critical it was to the founding of the country and how much newspapers played a part in it,” said Donna Griffin, author of a graphic novel chronicling Zenger’s pivotal one-day trial.
Griffin teamed up with artist Gary Varvel who illustrated the 48-page book, “The Birth of the First Amendment,” aimed at educating young readers.
“I have been thinking about the story of the Zenger trial for a while.” Griffin said. “I’ve been wanting to do a series of children’s books that really spoke to people about being a journalist.”
Journalists are, said Griffin, like firemen, policemen or librarians — a part of community we need to have and young people need to appreciate. Griffin, who has a background in journalism and teaching, has used graphic novels in her own classrooms and says the format is one that appeals to young readers.
“I thought, ‘This would be so cool to have journalists as superheroes, to have people in history be superheroes.’ ”
— Donna Griffin, author, “The Birth of the First Amendment”
“I thought, ‘This would be so cool to have journalists as superheroes, to have people in history be superheroes,’ ” Griffin said.
Griffin and Varvel collaborated before on an illustrated children’s book, “Old Whiskers Escapes,” the true story of President Benjamin Harrison’s pet goat. The First Amendment book is geared toward middle, high school and college readers.
Indiana Journalism Hall of Famer Varvel said he was fascinated by the Zenger story.
“And then to find out the Founding Fathers quoted from his trial when they were coming up with the Bill of Rights — I thought, ‘Everybody needs to know this story,’ ” Varvel said
The syndicated political cartoonist said illustrating a project like this is a labor-intensive venture. One of the drawings took 10 hours to complete. Varvel said it was a privilege to illustrate this important story.
“We need to know the roots of the freedoms that we have in the Constitution and I think we just take them for granted,” Varvel said. “I think if we understood better the sacrifices that people made, like Zenger, then maybe we’d appreciate them more.”
Griffin said the issues explored in Zenger’s story are timeless and resonate today.
“I started looking into this story … I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ If you read some of the transcripts of the trial and you really get into it, that story is really just kind of like the same things we’re talking about now.”
Fake news is among the topics and criticism of corruption in government, Griffin said.
“Some of the quotes, if you put them in a current trial, they’d fit perfectly,” she said.
“We need to know the roots of the freedoms that we have in the Constitution and I think we just take them for granted. I think if we understood better the sacrifices that people made, like Zenger, then maybe we’d appreciate them more.”
— Gary Varvel, illustrator, “The Birth of the First Amendment”
Orders are being taken now for the novel which will be available in November through Griffin’s company, Griffin Media and Publishing.
The HSPA Foundation provided funds to start the project and Griffin launched a kickstarter.com fundraiser on Aug. 4 — the anniversary of the 1735 Zenger trial — to fund the rest. As of Aug. 20, the effort has raised more than $2,500, nearly 25 percent of the $10,000 goal.
Kickstarter.com is an all or nothing funding model and the project has until Sept. 2 to reach its goal.
For information on the book project visit, https://birthofthefirstamendment.org/
To access the online kickstarter and order online visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/birthofirstamendment/the-birth-of-the-first-amendment.