Like William Penn and John Peter Zenger, the Wikileaks founder is fighting for our freedom.
When the magistrate presiding last September at Julian Assange’s extradition hearing, Vanessa Baraitser, confined the defendant to a bullet-proof glass cage at the back of the court, she had precedent on her side. All who entered her courtroom at London’s Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, had to pass a plaque memorializing a case against another defender of free speech and thought. The finely wrought marble plaque reads:
Near this Site
William Penn and William Mead
were tried in 1670
for preaching to an unlawful assembly
in Grace Church Street
This tablet Commemorates
The courage and endurance of the Jury, Thos. Vere, Edward Bushell
and ten others who refused to give a verdict
against them and were fined for their final
Verdict of Not Guilty…
William Penn, then a 26-year old Quaker firebrand, stood accused of preaching doctrines anathema to the established Church of England during an unlawful assembly. When the judges asked how he pleaded, Penn demanded to know which law he had broken. Sir John Howell, the recorder of London, told him he was charged under common law. Penn asked, “Where is that common law?” The exchange continued:
HOWELl: You must not think that I am able to run up so many years, and over so many adjudged cases, which we call common law, to answer your curiosity.
PENN: This answer, I am sure, is very short of my question, for if it is common, it should not be so very hard to produce.
HOWELL: The question is, whether you are guilty of the indictment.
PENN: The question is not, whether I am guilty of this indictment, but whether this Indictment is legal.
The recorder called him “an impertinent fellow” and banished him to the bale-dock for the rest of the trial. Like Assange’s glass box, the bale-dock was a locked cubicle separated from the rest of the court. Its underfloor location prevented Penn from witnessing the proceedings—and the jurors from seeing him.
Just as Assange admitted publishing American government documents that exposed war crimes, Penn did not deny preaching to his fellow Quakers. If ever a jury deserved the accolade “12 good men and true,” Penn’s did…
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