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

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

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

Syllabus

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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Primary Holding

The First Amendment does not permit applying different taxes to different sectors of the press unless there is a countervailing interest of compelling importance that cannot be achieved with any less restrictive means.

Facts

Minnesota exempted newspapers from a four percent sales tax set up by the state, but they were subject to a four percent use tax on the costs of ink and paper, which applied to any publication. Each newspaper received an annual tax credit of $4,000 through an exemption from the use tax for the first $100,000 of ink and paper that was used by a publication in a calendar year. However, in 1974, 11 papers used more than $100,000 in ink and paper, making them liable for the use tax; in 1975, 13 papers were required to pay the tax. The Minnesota Tribune argued that it should be refunded for the use taxes that it had paid because the law unconstitutionally restricted the freedom of the press under the First Amendment and also violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Opinions

Majority

  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

Strict scrutiny is appropriate for analyzing this restriction on the freedom of the press, which specifically targets an area protected by the First Amendment. The state argues that it has a substantial interest in raising revenue, but it could accomplish this goal by taxing all businesses generally rather than the press. While the press is also benefited by being exempted from the four percent sales tax, differential treatment on its face is constitutionally questionable because it creates a precedent for future differential treatment that could be more burdensome on the press. It also would be difficult to implement a rule that tied the constitutionality of a measure to the effective tax burdens that would result, since courts lack the expertise to evaluate different methods of taxation.

Moreover, this ink and paper tax is unconstitutional not only because it treats the press differently but also because it treats a certain small group of newspapers differently. The state may not be allowed to devise a tax scheme to single out certain members of the press under any circumstances, no matter how compelling the interest that it cites. A tax of which the entire burden is borne by a small part of the whole resembles a penalty for large newspapers rather than an effort to favor smaller newspapers.

Dissent

  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)

The effective tax burden on the plaintiff is smaller than if it were required to pay the sales tax. As the state points out, this measure benefits rather than burdens the freedom of the press. The First Amendment cannot be violated if no burden has been imposed.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

Case Commentary

This tax was discriminatory on its face because it applied special treatment to certain publication and expanded the state's power over the press to the point of censorship. The state failed to provide any reason for why it had taken this specific measure.

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