Imprisoned for a Libel on His Royal Highness the Prince Regent
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As the following trial is so recent, and must be still in the memory of our readers, who have most probably formed their own opinions respecting it, we shall forbear to make any comments; and which our limits will not allow us to give at length.
John and Leigh Hunt, one the editor, and the other the printer, of a newspaper called the Examiner, having been convicted of a libel on the above-mentioned illustrious personage, were brought up to receive the judgment of the court, on Wednesday, the 3rd of February; and, as soon as the judges, lord Ellenborough, Mr Justice Le Blanc, and Mr Justice Bailey, had taken their seats upon the bench.
The solicitor-general, Sir W. Garrow, moved for the judgment of the court upon the two defendants convicted of having printed and published a libel upon the prince regent, in the Examiner, Sunday newspaper. John and Leigh Hunt were accordingly called, and appearing, took their places upon the floor of the court. The chief justice then read the notes he had taken upon the trial, and read the libel as set forth in the information.
An affidavit, in the following words, was then put in by the defendants, and read by the clerk: -- "John Hunt and Leigh Hunt, the above-named defendants, severally make oath and say,-- first, the defendant, John Hunt, for himself, says, that he is the printer and part proprietor of the newspaper called the Examiner; and the defendant, Leigh Hunt, for himself, says, that he is the editor and the other part proprietor of the said newspaper: and these defendants severally say, that in writing and publishing the paper of which they had been convicted as for a libel, they were actuated by no personal malice whatever, nor any love or purpose of slander, and that they are conscious of no motives which were not honourable in writing and publishing the same. And these defendants further say, that with respect to their pecuniary resources (they are informed, and believe, that an erroneous opinion hath gone abroad, greatly magnifying the same, and they feel they have not altogether a right, in regard to their families, to omit to contradict the said reports,) that although their concern in the said newspaper is at present in a promising condition, and such as to enable them to maintain a respectable appearance, early difficulties arising from the heavy expenses of settling up their business, and other causes of a private nature, have nearly anticipated its profits up to the present hour -- and they further say, that in addition to the incumbrances on their concern already mentioned, they have been put to very heavy expenses in three previous prosecutions, in one of which they were acquitted, and in the two others were never brought to trial, -- and that their nett profits of one year were totally exhausted by the expenses attending one of such prosecutions which occurred within that year: and they submit to this honourable court, if it shall be its intention to punish them by any fine, that this circumstance should be taken into its consideration in mitigation of the amount of such fine."
No affidavits having been produced on behalf of the prosecution, the solicitor-general observed, that by the rules of the court the defendants' counsel was first to address their lordships.
Lord Ellenborough inquired if any counsel attended for Messrs. Hunt, when Mr L. Hunt replied, that they did not wish to occupy the time of the court, as the affidavit above quoted contained every thing they wished to urge.
The solicitor-general then said, "As this case calls for the judgment of your lordships, without any additional matter being afforded, (for I shall take the liberty of considering the affidavit just read as not comprising any important matter, since it is confined to a declaration on the part of the defendants, of their understanding of the motives with which they printed that which the jury found to be a malignant libel, and to a statement only of the pecuniary condition of these gentlemen) I do not think it necessary to trouble the court with any observations. All that could be said in defence, in extenuation, and in apology for the libel, was on a former occasion urged at considerable length, and with great ability: it was addressed to those who were the proper judges of such topics -- it was addressed to a jury which found the defendants guilty. -- In this stage of the proceeding, I may repeat what at a former period I stated, that in my judgment (which may perhaps be very erroneous,) if the libel does not speak for itself in terms to call upon your lordships for such a sentence as may secure the public against a repetition of this crime, no remarks I might, in my official situation, make, ought to induce the court to pronounce a judgment that would produce that beneficial result. -- I leave this case, therefore, in the hands of your lordships, without disturbing the court by any further observations."
A conference of some minutes then took place between the three judges, after which, Mr Justice Le Blanc addressed the defendants in the following terms:-- "John Hunt and Leigh Hunt, you have been tried and convicted by a jury of your country, of printing and publishing a scandalous and defamatory libel upon his royal highness the prince regent. The libel is contained in the information, and has been stated to the court, and it is impossible for anyone who has paid attention to the terms in which the libel is expressed, in the newspaper of which you, John Hunt, were the printer, and you, Leigh Hunt, the editor, not to say that it is a mischievous and daring attack upon the person filling the first situation in the government of this country. Your affidavit states, that in printing and publishing this passage in your newspaper, and in writing that libel, you "were actuated by no personal malice whatever, nor by any love or purpose of slander," and that "you are not conscious of any motives which are not honourable," that induced you to commit this offence. What were the motives which induced you either to compose, or to adopt the composition of others, and which in your minds appeared honourable, and not with any design to slander from personal malice, it is impossible for me to conceive; but this one may venture to pronounce, that no man filling the character of a good subject could, with any motive but a bad one, print a libel of this description, attacking and vilifying the head of the government of the country; because the individual occupying that station, standing at the head of the government of a nation, is not to be held up in public newspaper, in the manner you have held up the prince regent, as an object of detestation and abhorrence, which you endeavour to persuade your readers that he is. Whether your motive was to gratify the mischievous curiosity of the public -- to satisfy the diseased taste of the people, greedy to catch at anything which, by destroying the respect due to the constituted authorities, pulls down those at the head of affairs to the lowest possible level -- if such were the motive which you call not malicious or dishonourable, the court cannot pronounce. But when they have before them men who have been convicted of offences like the present, it behoves those who are entrusted with the administration of criminal justice to protect that government under which we all live, and to support the head of that government, without which the present state of society could not exist. in passing, therefore, the sentence of the court, it is necessary to keep in view that which is ever an object of criminal justice -- to hold forth to the world, that those who are found in your situation, must answer to the country for the mischief which their publication must necessarily occasion, since the effect of it is to destroy the bonds of society, by holding up the government to disgrace and contempt. We must point out wholesome examples to others, to deter them from being guilty of offences similar to that of which you have been convicted.
"The sentence of the court upon you, therefore, is, that you severally pay to the king a fine of £500 each; that you be severally imprisoned for the space of two years; you, John Hunt, in the prison in Coldbath-fields, and you, Leigh Hunt, in the New Jail for the county of Surrey in Horsemonger-lane; that at the expiration of that time, you each of you give security in £500 and two sufficient sureties in £250 for your good behaviour during five years, and that you be further severally imprisoned until such fine be paid, and such security given."
The defendants bowed, and withdrew from the court in custody.