On a wintry night, the target of the mob's anger left the relative safety of the stone warehouse where he and 20 friends were under siege and attempted to exinguish a fire started on the roof by the rioters. When he appeared he was struck by a gunshot and staggered back into the warehouse crying, "Oh God, I am shot. I am shot." He died a few moments later.

He was the Rev. Elijah Parish Lovejoy. He was killed in Alton, Ill., defending the fourth printing press he had attempted to use in the publication of The Laton Observer. Three other presses had been destroyed by townspeople who were outraged by the abolitionist editorials Mr. Lovejoy published uncompromisingly.

He had come from Maine, and attempted to settle in St. Louis, but fearing his family's safety, moved to the larger town of Alton, where he thought his anti-slavery articles would at least not inspire physical abuse. He underestimated the savage emotions of the pro-slavers and was martyred for his misjudgment.

Mr. Lovejoy was the first American to die for the belief that freedom of the press was an unquestionable right. He was killed in 1837 and was buried on his 35th birthday.

Twenty-one years after Mr. Lovejoy's death, an Irish immigrant arrived to work as a printer at another local newspaper, The Alton Telegraph. His descendants have published the paper for the past 92 years. It now has a circulation of 38,000 and grosses about $5 million a year. Despite the file of awards the paper has received, the current editor, Stephen A. Cousley, is more pleased with the paper's local achievements: its efforts at community improvement, its effort to boost the local economy in a town of declining population.

But now there is another threat to Alton's newspaper. Unlike Mr. Lovejoy, who lost his life for material he printed. The Telegraph might have to be sold for material it did not publish.

In 1969 two of the paper's reporters, responding to requests for information from the Justice Department, submitted written queries about a local savings and loan association. Their sources were local law enforcement officials and they were seeking verification of rumors of questionable loan practices. They saw the possibility of a news story if the rumors proved true. They never received confirmation of the allegations and the paper never published a story, nor did any other newspaper.

But the queries found their way into the hands of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which investigated and found overextended loans to a local contractor. His credit was restricted and his business collapsed. He sued The Telegraph. Last year a jury found The Telegraph guilty of libel and awarded the contractor $9.2 million in damages, a sum so large that the newspaper can't even raise the prohibitively expensive bond that is required for an appeal. So the paper was reorganized under the bankruptcy laws in order to retain its assets pending appeal. Unless the verdict is reversed or the total damages reduced, the paper's management says there will be no choice but to put the paper up for sale.

The outrageous size of the damage poses an array of legal problems.Who, for example, is really responsible for the action that closed the contractor's business -- the reporters' queries or the bank board's investigators? But just as importantly, how does anyone seek information from government sources about possible illegal activity, particularly if a question results in an investigation and legal action follows?

The new version of Mr. Lovejoy's fatal arguments for freedom of the press coincides with the public's right to ask officials about stories of wrongdoing.

The first chance for The Telegraph to have its appeal heard is later this month, and the issues are far larger than the fortunes of a beleaguered newspaper, a savings and loan association or a contractor.