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Grosjean v. American Press Co.


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297 U.S. 233 (1936), argued 14 Jan. 1936, decided 10 Feb. 1936 by vote of 9 to 0; Sutherland for the Court. The Court unanimously invalidated a license tax on the business of selling advertising (in the amount of 2 percent of the gross receipts from such sales) imposed by Louisiana in 1934 on all newspapers with a circulation of more than twenty thousand copies per week. The tax was challenged as an abridgment of freedom of the press and as a violation of equal protection. It was noted by counsel that only thirteen of the 163 newspapers in the state had sufficient circulation to be required to pay it, and twelve of those thirteen were actively opposed to the Huey Long administration, at whose instigation the tax was enacted.

The Court considered only the free press challenge. It equated the license tax to the “taxes on knowledge” imposed on newspapers and advertising by Parliament in the eighteenth century, whose purpose was not to raise revenue but to reduce the circulation of newspapers and thus limit public access to criticisms of the Crown. The obviously similar motivation of the Louisiana legislature was plainly crucial to the Court's conclusion here. The tax was held unconstitutional because it was hostile to the press. It applied only to “a selected group of newspapers” (p. 251) and was “a deliberate and calculated device in the guise of a tax to limit the circulation of information” pertaining to public affairs (p. 250).

The year after Grosjean, the Court made clear that newspapers are not exempt from nondiscriminatory general taxation. In Giragi v. Moore (1937), it dismissed without opinion a claim for such an exemption. The Court has since categorically declared that newspapers are subject to all forms of nondiscriminatory economic regulation, including taxation (Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue, 1983).

Dean Alfange, Jr.

Subjects: Law.


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