The Kingfish and the Constitution: Huey Long, the First Amendment, and the Emergence of Modern Press Freedom in America

By Merriman, Scott A. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

The Kingfish and the Constitution: Huey Long, the First Amendment, and the Emergence of Modern Press Freedom in America


Merriman, Scott A., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Press Freedom in America. Richard C. Cortner Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996. 216 pp. $55.00 cloth.

Cortner attempts to illuminate a lesser-known area of American constitutional development and to draw attention to some traditionally ignored aspects of Huey Long's autocracy in Louisiana. The freedom of the press in America is first discussed, focusing on the ability of the state to control and punish unpopular ideas. Cortner identifies and profiles the personalities in the Louisiana press, and shows how their rapport with the Kingfish changed over time. In addition, Long's life and political antics are chronicled. Soon after becoming Senator, Long was vehemently opposed by most of the daily press of Louisiana, and, wishing to silence them, he pushed through a 1934 state tax on their advertising revenue, calling it, among other things, a tax on lying (82). This resulted in a drawn-out court fight. The arguments utilized by both sides in the dispute, as well as the personalities, are detailed, and the path of the case to the Supreme Court is well-chronicled. The Supreme Court held, unanimously, in "Grosjean v. American Press Co." (1936) that the tax should be overruled as an assault on free speech, ruling that it was unconstitutional as it destroyed the freedom of the press, and that it also violated the equal protection clause, being applicable to only the larger newspapers.

This work has a number of beneficial aspects, including its lively, readable style. Cortner utilizes newspapers, court records, articles and most of the secondary literature in this generally well-researched text. …

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