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Grosjean v. American Press Co.

Court Strikes Down Tax As Unconstitutional Prior Restraint

The Supreme Court unanimously declared that the tax was a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press, which was applicable to state governments because of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The purpose of the tax, said the Court, was not to raise revenue for Louisiana, but to silence criticism of state government. In this, the license tax resembled certain "taxes on knowledge" imposed by the British Parliament in the eighteenth century on newspapers critical of the Crown. The knowledge taxes, noted the Court, were one of the sparks that set off the Revolutionary War:

[T]hese taxes constituted one of the factors that aroused the American colonists to protest against taxation for the purposes of the home government . . . the revolution really began when, in 1765, that [British] government sent stamps for newspaper duties to the American colonies . . . in the adoption of the English newspaper stamp tax and the tax on advertisements, revenue was of subordinate concern . . . the dominant and controlling aim was to prevent, or curtail the opportunity for, the acquisition of knowledge by people in respect of their governmental affairs.
Taxes on knowledge, like the Louisiana license tax, were imposed on those newspapers with the widest readership. Both taxes resulted in what amounted to state-sponsored censorship.

The prohibition on prior restraint of the press thus became one of the building blocks of the American democracy, enshrined in the First Amendment. One of the primary targets of the First Amendment was such "odious methods" of government censorship as discriminatory taxes on the press, clearly intended to prevent free public discussion of matters pertinent to the exercise of individual rights.

Louisiana's once governor, Huey P. Long, has been called a democrat and a demagogue, a populist and a fascist. Even after he left the governorship in 1930 to assume a seat in the U.S. Senate, Long continued to use his political machine to control the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of Louisiana government. His policy was "the end justifies the means," and he used it to rationalize his nearly dictatorial use of the legislature to achieve his political ends. For many, he bore a strong resemblance to the absolute monarchs whose arbitrary exercise of power had so alienated the American colonists. After Long was assassinated in 1935, Robert Penn Warren wrote a novel based on his career called All the King's Men (1946).

After Grosjean, the Supreme Court upheld other, nondiscriminatory taxation of newspapers. What the Court made clear in the earlier case, however, is that abuses of power--in Grosjean the legislative taxing power--intended to circumvent the First Amendment will not be tolerated at the federal or the state level. The founding fathers framed their intolerance of such abuses in clear language when they wrote: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Grosjean v. American Press Co. - Significance, Court Strikes Down Tax As Unconstitutional Prior Restraint, Pro And Con: Taxing Newspapers