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Minneapolis Star v. Minnesota Comm'r, 460 U.S. 575 (1983)

Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v.

Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue

No. 81-1839

Argued January 12, 1983

Decided March 29, 1983

460 U.S. 575


While exempting periodic publications from its general sales and use tax, Minnesota imposes a "use tax" on the cost of paper and ink products consumed in the production of such a publication, but exempts the first $100,000 worth of paper and ink consumed in any calendar year. Appellant newspaper publisher brought an action seeking a refund of the ink and paper use taxes it had paid during certain years, contending that the tax violates, inter alia, the guarantee of the freedom of the press in the First Amendment. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the tax.

Held: The tax in question violates the First Amendment. Pp. 460 U. S. 579-593.

(a) 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 Minnesota Legislature in enacting the tax. Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U. S. 233, distinguished. Pp. 579-580.

(b) But by creating the special use tax, which is without parallel in the State's tax scheme, Minnesota has singled out the press for special treatment. When a State so singles out the press, the political constraints that prevent a legislature from imposing crippling taxes of general applicability are weakened, and the threat of burdensome taxes becomes acute. That threat can operate as effectively as a censor to check critical comment by the press, thus undercutting the basic assumption of our political system that the press will often serve as an important restraint on government. Moreover, differential treatment, unless justified by some special characteristic of the press, suggests that the goal of the regulation is not unrelated to suppression of expression, and such goal is presumptively unconstitutional. Differential treatment of the press, then, places such a burden on the interests protected by the First Amendment that such treatment cannot be countenanced unless the State asserts a counterbalancing interest of compelling importance that it cannot achieve without differential taxation. Pp. 460 U. S. 581-585.

(c) Minnesota has offered no adequate justification for the special treatment of newspapers. Its interest in raising revenue, standing alone, cannot justify such treatment, for the alternative means of taxing businesses generally is clearly available. And the State has offered no explanation of why it chose to use a substitute for the sales tax, rather

Page 460 U. S. 576

than the sales tax itself. A rule that would automatically allow the State to single out the press for a different method of taxation as long as the effective burden is no different from that on other taxpayers or, as Minnesota asserts here, is lighter than that on other businesses, is to be avoided. The possibility of error inherent in such a rule poses too great a threat to concerns at the heart of the First Amendment. Pp. 460 U. S. 586-590.

(d) Minnesota's ink and paper tax violates the First Amendment not only because it singles out the press, but also because it targets a small group of newspapers. The effect of the $100,000 exemption is that only a handful of publishers in the State pay any tax at all, and even fewer pay any significant amount of tax. To recognize a power in the State not only to single out the press, but also to tailor the tax so that it singles out a few members of the press, presents such a potential for abuse that no interest suggested by Minnesota can justify the scheme. Pp. 460 U. S. 591-592.

314 N.W.2d 201, reversed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, in Part V of which WHITE, J., joined, and in all but footnote 12 of which BLACKMUN, J., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 460 U. S. 593. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 460 U. S. 596.

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