Libel in Mississippi, 1798--1832

Muriel Ann Everton


The Mississippi Territory officially became part of the United States in 1798. The territory was to be governed under the rules of the Northwest Ordinance, but those who went to govern the area found a culture that required the use of common law to settle the disputes arising from prior governments under other nations. With no precedents on which to rely, disputes led, at first, to dueling and then to libel cases. Both common law and common sense prevailed while many of the disagreements were aired publicly in newspapers. Mississippi's first printer, Andrew Marschalk, using his First Amendment rights, wrote about the public conduct of officials. The officials took him to court on libel charges, where some issues and court decisions were ahead of decisions reached in libel law in the courts of the United States. Areas of concern were the liability of printers, the right of discussion of politics and official conduct, and the right of printers to be free from prosecution by courts and grand juries who were influenced by public officials.