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Lawsuit by Primož Mešnjak against Josip Jurčič for Libel and Neglect of his Duties as an Editor

On April 28, 1875, newspaper Slovenski narod published a notice titled »Murder«, which cautioned people against seeking overnight accommodation at homes of »compassionate people« by reporting about the murder of a peddler, who travelled through Carinthia, selling »goods with blade«. The initial suspect pub owner Primož Mešnak felt deeply wronged by the accusations and addressed a lawsuit against the editor of the newspaper Slovenski narod Josip Jurčič. The court acquitted Juričič and referred the plaintiff to a civil lawsuit in regard to his claim for damages. Presented here as this month's archivalia are some of the more interesting documents from the court file.

The lawsuit in manuscript is written in German.

Excerpt from the lawsuit by Primož Mešnak addressed to the Provincial Court in Ljubljana on 14 May 1875. | Author Arhiv Republike Slovenije

An insult of honor or a neglect of the editorial function?

On April 28, 1875, newspaper Slovenski narod published a notice titled »Murder«, which cautioned people against seeking overnight accommodation at homes of »compassionate people« by reporting about the murder of an Italian peddler, who travelled through Carinthia, selling »goods with blade«. According to the notice, the murderer in this case was the owner of the pub Križnik in the Carinthian village of Mohliče (Möchling, Muhelče) who wanted to get his hands on the money he had seen the peddler count in the evening: » … at night the pub owner stabbed the peddler to death and dumped his body in the river Drava …«. The notice also said that the peddler's body was found in the river near Velikovec and that the perpetrator was already under investigation. Later it was exposed that it was all a »fake news«, since the supposedly murdered peddler turned up a few days later in another town alive and well. The pub owner Primož Mešnak (Meschnak vulgo Križnik) felt deeply wronged by the accusations and addressed a lawsuit against the editor of the newspaper Slovenski narod Josip Jurčič. He asked to be represented in this case by the State Prosecutor's Office in Ljubljana and he demanded a compensation of 200 Gulden.

Initially, the State Prosecutor's Office in Ljubljana intended to charge Jurčič with criminal act of offence (according to Austrian legal system, criminal acts were divided into crime, offence and transgressions; serious cases – crime and offence – were under the jurisdiction of the provincial courts, while transgression was dealt with at district courts). In this case, court investigation was launched by the Provincial Court in Ljubljana. However, it was said that the indictment for the criminal act of offence needed to be dealt with before the court jury and the experience of the State Prosecutor's Office in Ljubljana in connection with trials by jury were rather bad – similar to elsewhere, jurors tended to pronounce newspaper editors not guilty. It seems that the State Prosecutor's Office in Ljubljana wanted to avoid this happening and withdrew the initial indictment (which charged Juričič with the offence of libel according to Article 487 and 493 of the penal code) and rewrote it in such a way that Juričič was charged with neglect of his editorial duties (supervision of the newspaper content) based on Article 7 of the 1868 Print Act. On December 29, 1875, the district court acquitted Juričič and referred the plaintiff to a civil lawsuit in regard to his claim for damages.  

Presented here as this month's archivalia are some of the more interesting documents from the court file:

Lawsuit by Primož Mešnak sent to the Provincial Court in Ljubljana on May 14, 1875: the pub owner from Mohliče in Carinthia is bringing a lawsuit against Josip Jurčič in connection with the publishing of the notice in the newspaper Slovenski narod on April 28, 1875. In the notice, it was reported that he had murdered a peddler who was staying for the night at his place. The plaintiff states that he was found innocent by the State Prosecutor's Office in Klagenfurt already on April 14, 1875, when the investigation and the questioning at the mentioned court established that there was no legal basis for his persecution in regard to the alleged crime. His innocence was also reported to the District Court in Dobrla vas on April 16, 1875. Despite all this, the newspaper Slovenski narod published a notice, accusing him of murder. This tarnished his reputation and on top of that he also suffered financially, since people were now avoiding entering his pub.

This was the basis for Mešnak’s indictment against the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Josip Jurčič. He sued him for libel and offence according to Articles 487 and 493 of the penal code and he demanded financial compensation of 200 Gulden. He asked to be represented in this matter by the State Prosecutor’s Office in Ljubljana.

A letter by Josip Jurčič to the Provincial Presidency in Ljubljana on December, 20, 1874, in which he assumes the position of the editor-in-chief of Slovenski narod.

A letter by the Ljubljana mayor Anton Laschan of July 13, 1875, in which he sends information on Josip Jurčič to the Provincial Court in Ljubljana, following the request of the court to do so. Jurčič was known to Ljubljana city authorities as a student of the university in Vienna, who, rather than studying, devoted most of his time to writing. He eventually dropped out of the university and moved to Ljubljana, where he became a newspaper editor. He lived a comfortable life financially; he received 1200 Gulden yearly and enjoyed a good reputation.

The minutes of the court hearing of the defendant Josip Jurčič at the Provincial Court on June 24, 1875. Primož Mešnak is suing a 31-year old Josip Jurčič, single, born in Krka, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Slovenski narod, currently living in Ljubljana at Kolman’s house, for libel. Jurčič defended himself, saying that he published a well-known news, which he had received from an otherwise reliable correspondent, who had in this case obviously been misinformed. He pointed out that he was not acquainted with the plaintiff, so he had no intention to do him harm.

The verdict of the District Court in Ljubljana of December 31, 1875, acquitted Josip Jurčič of the charge of neglecting his duties as an editor-in-chief. The plaintiff, who was expecting some compensation, was referred to make a civil claim. The court observed several facts: statute of limitation of the case had passed, but mostly the court agreed with Jurčič’s explanation that the notice itself was not illegal, that he had believed his reliable correspondent, with whom he had been cooperating for eight years, that the rumour of murder had seemed probable and that as an editor he could not personally check up whether all news that he was receiving daily were actually true.   

Dragan Matić