Sales Tax on Newspaper Equipment Overturned: Mass. High Court Says Tax Solely on Newspapers Violates First Amendment

By Garneau, George | Editor & Publisher, June 8, 1991 | Go to article overview

Sales Tax on Newspaper Equipment Overturned: Mass. High Court Says Tax Solely on Newspapers Violates First Amendment


Garneau, George, Editor & Publisher


Sales tax on newspaper equipment overturned

The highest court in Massachusetts has thrown out as unconstitutional a state sales tax targeting equipment and materials used by newspapers and exempting other manufacturers.

The state's Supreme Judicial Court held unanimously that the law's "differential" tax treatment of newspapers "does impose a burden on interests protected by the First Amendment."

The law singled out newspapers to pay a 5% sales tax on materials, fuel and machinery used in production. The state revenue commissioner later issued an opinion exempting newsprint, which accounts for about 20% of a newspaper's total costs, and ink.

The law, which took effect last September, was expected to raise $1.6 million a year in revenue.

The Boston Globe, the state's biggest paper, appealed. The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, representing 42 dailies and 60 weeklies, filed a friend-of-the-court brief.

The ruling bars the state from collecting the tax and entitles the Globe to recover attorneys' fees. The paper has not decided whether to take the fees. Neither the state nor the Globe are doing well financially.

The Massachusetts court cited the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue, in which the court struck down a similar tax.

Associate Justice Ruth I. Abrams, writing for the court, said that, when government taxes newspapers differently from other enterprises, it weakens the press's protection from politics, such as taxes designed to reward or punish the media for what they say. …

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