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Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue

    Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co. (Petitioner), brought suit alleging that a use tax on its printing supplies unconstitutionally violated its First Amendment freedom of the press.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. When a tax is directly aimed at the activities of a newspaper, the punitive effects it causes can be considered an abrogation of the paper’s First Amendment constitutional rights.

    Facts. In 1971 the Minnesota legislature enacted a use tax on the supplies of newspapers. Later, the tax was amended to exempt the first $100,000 of supplies that were bought subject to this tax. The Petitioner, a large newspaper, bore 2/3 of the tax burden after the amendments and sought to have the tax declared unconstitutional. In its complaint, the Petitioner alleged that the tax on ink and paper used in publications was a violation of the freedom of press and equal protection clauses of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution (Constitution). The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the tax and the Petitioner brought its complaint to the United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court), which granted certiorari.

    Issue. This case considers whether a tax aimed at printing supplies is discriminatory against newspapers, in violation of their First Amendment freedom of the press.

    Held. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (J. O’Connor). Reversed.
    For the Supreme Court, J. O’Connor considered the implications presented by the use tax, ultimately holding that the tax violated the First Amendment of the Constitution because it both singled out the press, but also because the $100,000 exemption caused the tax to only be applicable to a narrow group of publishers.
    In reaching its holding, the Supreme Court also noted that the state offered no compelling reason why it chose this tax over a sales tax and thus the State did not overcome the presumption that the tax was discriminatory.

    Dissent. Justice William Rehnquist (J. Rehnquist) dissented, noting that the Petitioner was actually subjected to less taxation through the use tax than it would have been through a sales tax.
    Concurrence. Justice Byron White (J. White) concurred, noting that the feature of the tax that limited its applicability to a few papers, alone, was sufficient to invalidate the tax. In his concurrence, J. White also noted that there will be cases where the differential method of taxation will impose a greater burden, but in agreement with J. Rehnquist, this case is not of that sort.

    Discussion. While this case raises several issues regarding discrimination in taxation, a student should focus on the fact that the tax, by its design, created a hardship on newspapers, which was construed as an abrogation of their First Amendment constitution rights.


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