Grosjean v. American Press Co., Inc. 297 U.S. 233 (1936)

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GROSJEAN v. AMERICAN PRESS CO., INC. 297 U.S. 233 (1936)

In this unique case the Court unanimously held unconstitutional, as abridgments of the freedom of the press, any "taxes on knowledge"—a phrase, from British history, used to designate any punitive or discriminatory tax imposed on publications for the purpose of limiting their circulation. Louisiana, under the influence of Governor Huey Long, exacted a license tax (two percent of gross receipts) on newspapers with a circulation exceeding 20,000 copies weekly. By no coincidence the tax fell on thirteen publications, twelve of which were critics of Long's regime, and missed the many smaller papers that supported him. The large publishers sued to enjoin enforcement of the license tax and won a permanent injunction.

Justice george sutherland, writing for the Court, reviewed the history of taxes on knowledge, concluding that mere exemption from prior restraint was too narrow a view of the freedom of the press protected by the first and fourteenth amendments. In addition to immunity from censorship, that freedom barred any government action that might prevent the discussion of public matters. Sutherland declared that publishers were subject to the ordinary forms of taxation, but the tax here was an extraordinary one with a long British history, known to the framers of the First Amendment, of trammeling the press as a vital source of public information. Similarly, Louisiana's use of the tax showed it to be a deliberate device to fetter a selected group of newspapers. To allow a free press to be fettered, Sutherland said, "is to fetter ourselves." Deciding that the tax abridged the freedom of the press made unnecessary a determination whether it also denied the equal protection of the laws. In subsequent cases the Court sustained nondiscriminatory taxes on publishers but extended the principle of Grosjean to strike down taxes inhibiting religious liberty.

Leonard W. Levy