The Supreme Court decision in Leathers v. Medlock, 499 U.S. 439 (1991), firmly established the principle that a generally applicable tax that may fall harder on one form of media than others does not violate the First Amendment right of freedom of expression or the equal protection clause.
Arkansas taxed cable television but not newspapers, magazines
The case involved the Arkansas Gross Receipts Act, which imposed a 4 percent tax on receipts from sales of services, including cable television, but exempted receipts for newspaper and subscription magazine sales.
Daniel Medlock, a cable television subscriber, and others filed a class-action suit, asserting that the case should be governed by decisions such as Arkansas Writers’ Project, Inc. v. Ragland (1987), which determined that selective taxation of the press offended the First Amendment.
Court said tax did not single out cable television, did not violate First Amendment
Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor made a distinction between Leathers and Arkansas Writers’ Project, Inc. noting that the gross receipts law “does not single out the press and does not therefore threaten to hinder the press as a watchdog of government activity.” She found “no indication in these cases that Arkansas has targeted cable television in a purposeful attempt to interfere with its First Amendment activities.”
O’Connor found support in Regan v. Taxation With Representation of Washington (1983) for the “proposition that a tax scheme that discriminates among speakers does not implicate the First Amendment unless it discriminates on the basis of ideas. ”The Court concluded that the challengers put forward no proof that the intent of the law was to censor cable television.
In his dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, wrote, “I believe that the First Amendment prohibits the State from singling out a particular information medium for heavier tax burdens than are borne by like-situated media.”
David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017). This article was originally published in 2009.