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Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Comm’r of Revenue

    Brief Fact Summary. A special tax that singled out certain publications protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution) was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Differential treatment, unless justified by some special characteristic of the press, suggests that the goal of regulation is related to suppression of expression and such a goal is presumptively unconstitutional. Differential taxation on the press places such a burden on the interests protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution that the Supreme Court cannot countenance such treatment unless the state asserts a counterbalancing interest of compelling importance, which it cannot achieve without differential taxation.

    Facts. The Appellant, Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. (Appellant), was one of a few publications companies that was subject to Minnesota’s “use tax” that taxed the cost of paper and ink products consumed in the process of publication with some exemptions. In both 1974 and 1975, Appellant and a few other publishers paid a tax. Both years, Appellant bore roughly two-thirds of the total receipts from the use tax on ink and paper. Appellant instituted this action to seek a refund on the use taxes that it paid from January 1, 1974 to May 31, 1975. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the tax.

    Issue. Whether must be struck down under the authority of [Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233 (1936)]?
    Whether the select tax violates the First Amendment of the Constitution?

    Held. No. This case is not controlling. The result in Grosjean may have been attributable in part to the perception on the part of the Supreme Court that the state imposed a tax with the intent to penalize a select group of newspapers. In this case, there is no legislative history and no indication, apart from the structure of the tax itself, of any impermissible or censorial motive on the part of the legislature. Therefore, we cannot analyze this case by a simple citation to Grosjean.
    Yes. Judgment of the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed. The First Amendment of the Constitution does not prohibit all regulation of the press. The government can subject newspapers to generally applicable economic regulations. Here, Minnesota has not chosen to apply its general sales tax and use tax to newspapers. Instead, it has created a special tax that only applies to certain publications that are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. By creating this special tax, Minnesota has singled out the press for special treatment. Such a differential taxation on the press would have troubled the framers of the Constitution. Differential treatment, unless justified by some special characteristic of the press, suggests that the goal of regulation is related to suppression of expression and such a goal is presumptively unconstitutional. Differential taxation on the press places such a burden on the interests protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution that the Court
    cannot countenance such treatment unless the state asserts a counterbalancing interest of compelling importance, which it cannot achieve without differential taxation. The main interest asserted by Minnesota is raising revenue. Standing alone, this interest cannot justify the special treatment of the press, for there are many alternative means for raising revenue that are permissible under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Minnesota’s ink and paper tax violates the First Amendment of the Constitution not only because it singles out the press, but also because it targets a small group of newspapers. Therefore, the select tax violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.

    Dissent. This taxing scheme has benefited rather than burdened the “freedom of speech, and of the press.”

    Discussion. This case emphasizes the dangers involved in singling out “the press” for special regulatory treatm


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