The Supreme Court in Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue, 460 U.S. 575 (1983), ruled that a “use tax” on the cost of paper and ink products used by periodic publications in excess of $100,000 a year violated the freedom of the press as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments by singling out the press and targeting a small group of newspapers.
Tax on paper and ink products only applied to 11 publishers
Because of the initial $100,000 exemption, the use tax applied only to 11 publishers, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune paid the lion’s share. The Minnesota Supreme Court had upheld the tax as an alternative to the state sales tax, which Minnesota did not apply to newspapers.
Court thought the tax was ‘facially discriminatory’
Writing for the majority, in which six other justices concurred, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor acknowledged there was no evidence that this tax intended to target individual publications—which was in contrast to Grosjean v. American Press Co. (1936)—but she still thought that the law was “facially discriminatory.” It imposed a tax that “did not serve the function of protecting the sales taxes” and that taxed “an intermediate transaction rather than the ultimate retail sale.” It thus constituted a form of “special treatment”for the press.
O’Connor thought this kind of differential treatment would have “troubled the framers of the First Amendment” because such taxation gives the government “a powerful weapon against the taxpayer selected.” In contrast to a sales tax that would apply to all, the Minnesota tax sent the signal that government could disadvantage the press as well as favor it. O’Connor thought further potential abuse could stem from the tax’s application to such “a small group of newspapers.”
In a separate partial concurrence, Justice Byron R. White preferred voiding the tax only on the basis that it favored some publishers over others.
Rehnquist thought the law was rational
In dissent, Justice William H. Rehnquist argued that the First Amendment was designed only to prohibit laws that “abridge” freedom of the press and that under the law in question, even the Minneapolis Star Tribune benefited by comparison to what it would have had to pay had it been subject to a general sales tax. He thought the law was a rational state response to the difficulty of subjecting so many small sales to a sales tax and observed that all newspapers were exempt from taxes on the first $100,000 of paper and ink that they bought. Author Randall Bezanson believes the general principle underlying the decision is that of neutrality.