This case examined freedom of press and information. In 1934, Louisiana passed an act that taxed newspapers and others on the gross receipts of any advertisements that they published. The act pertained to businesses that had a circulation of more than twenty thousand copies per week. Nine publishers brought suit against the act. Justice Sutherland delivered the opinion of the Court.
The publishers claimed the act violated the federal Constitution by abridging the freedom of the press. The Court established that because the First Amendment is a fundamental right, it is safeguarded against state action by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court then discussed the history of ‘‘taxes on knowledge,’’ including different taxes placed on colony newspapers by the English Crown. Such taxes were protested not because of their tax burden, but because of their effect of curtailing the circulation of newspapers. The Court saw that it was clear that the Constitution’s framers were aware that such taxes were not acceptable to the American people and that the First Amendment was meant to protect against prior restraint, including prior restraint though taxation. Newspapers, as an instrument of spreading information crucial to self-governance, need freedom of publication. Taxes against newspapers are certainly permissible, but taxes that are a method of limiting circulation and information are not. This case, with its measurement based on circulation, is clearly suspicious. This tax is not constitutionally legal.
The Court continues to favor freedom of press as a method of supplying information to the voting population.
MICHELE L. HILL