Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue
Decided on Mar. 29, 1983; 460 US 575


A. Issues Discussed: Freedom of the Press

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a "use tax" that taxes the cost of paper and ink that surpasses $100,000 during a calendar year violate the freedom of the press in the First Amendment?


A. Background:

"Since 1967, Minnesota has imposed a sales tax on most sales of goods for a price in excess of a nominal sum... In general, the tax applies only to retail sales...

The appellant, Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co., 'Star Tribune,' is the publisher of a morning newspaper and an evening newspaper (until 1982) in Minneapolis. From 1967 until 1971, it enjoyed an exemption from the sales and use tax provided by Minnesota for periodic publications. In 1971, however, while leaving the exemption from the sales tax in place, the legislature amended the scheme to impose a 'use tax' on the cost of paper and ink products consumed in the production of a publication... Ink and paper used in publications became the only items subject to the use tax that were components of goods to be sold at retail. In 1974, the legislature again amended the statute, this time to exempt the first $100,000 worth of ink and paper consumed by a publication in any calendar year, in effect giving each publication an annual tax credit of $4,000...

After the enactment of the $100,000 exemption, 11 publishers, producing 14 of the 388 paid circulation newspapers in the State, incurred a tax liability in 1974. Star Tribune was one of the 11, and, of the $893,355 collected, it paid $608,634, or roughly two-thirds of the total revenue raised by the tax. In 1975, 13 publishers, producing 16 out of 374 paid circulation papers, paid a tax. That year, Star Tribune again bore roughly two-thirds of the total receipts from the use tax on ink and paper.

Star Tribune instituted this action to seek a refund of the use taxes it paid from January 1, 1974, to May 31, 1975. It challenged the imposition of the use tax on ink and paper used in publications as a violation of the guarantees of freedom of the press and equal protection in the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the tax against the federal constitutional challenge."

On appeal the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Peter W. Schroth and Charles S. Sims for the American Civil Liberties Union et al.; and by Philip A. Lacovara, W. Terry Maguire, and Pamela J. Riley for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Inc., et al.

Lawrence C. Brown argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs were John D. French, John P. Borger, and Norton L. Armour.

Paul R. Kempainen, Special Assistant Attorney General of Minnesota, argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was Warren Spannaus, Attorney General.


"Clearly, the First Amendment does not prohibit all regulation of the press. It is beyond dispute that the States and the Federal Government can subject newspapers to generally applicable economic regulations without creating constitutional problems. Minnesota, however, has not chosen to apply its general sales and use tax to newspapers. Instead, it has created a special tax that applies only to certain publications protected by the First Amendment. Although the State argues now that the tax on paper and ink is part of the general scheme of taxation, the use tax provision... is facially discriminatory, singling out publications for treatment that is, to our knowledge, unique in Minnesota tax law.

Minnesota's treatment of publications differs from that of other enterprises in at least two important respects: it imposes a use tax that does not serve the function of protecting the sales tax, and it taxes an intermediate transaction rather than the ultimate retail sale. A use tax ordinarily serves to complement the sales tax by eliminating the incentive to make major purchases in States with lower sales taxes; it requires the resident who shops out-of-state to pay a use tax equal to the sales tax savings. Minnesota designed its overall use tax scheme to serve this function.... But the use tax on ink and paper serves no such complementary function; it applies to all uses, whether or not the taxpayer purchased the ink and paper instate, and it applies to items exempt from the sales tax...

There is substantial evidence that differential taxation of the press would have troubled the Framers of the First Amendment...

A power to tax differentially, as opposed to a power to tax generally, gives a government a powerful weapon against the taxpayer selected. When the State imposes a generally applicable tax, there is little cause for concern. We need not fear that a government will destroy a selected group of taxpayers by burdensome taxation if it must impose the same burden on the rest of its constituency. When the State singles out the press, though, the political constraints that prevent a legislature from passing 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, undercutting the basic assumption of our political system that the press will often serve as an important restraint on government...

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 enacted in 1974 is that only a handful of publishers pay any tax at all, and even fewer pay any significant amount of tax. The State explains this exemption as part of a policy favoring an 'equitable' tax system, although there are no comparable exemptions for small enterprises outside the press. Again, there is no legislative history supporting the State's view of the purpose of the amendment. Whatever the motive of the legislature in this case, we think that recognizing 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."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Minnesota.

Justice Vote: 8 Pro vs. 1 Con

  • O'Connor, S.D. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro & Con (Wrote concurring/dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus, urged reversal of the Supreme Court of Minnesota's judgment; the Supreme Court reversed in a 8-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.