THE FOLLOWING commentary was broadcast recently over American Public Radio's "Marketplace" business news program by Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal:
"The Massachusetts legislature, following the British example, imposed a stamp tax on all newspapers and magazines in 1785. There was so much opposition that it was repealed a year later. And to make sure, four years later Congress proposed the First Amendment.
"The point is that the First Amendment was clearly inspired by government infringement on a free press through taxation, not necessarily through censorship, of what was published.
"In the past two decades, the major newspapers and the trade associations have passively allowed states to whittle away at this protection. They are quick to decry government threats of censorship, but they are strangely silent when that threat comes by way of taxation.
"The state of Virginia taxes each morning's Washington Post. Since last summer, the Los Angeles Times has been taxed at news stands throughout the state of California. The New York Times or the USA Today or the Wall Street Journal is taxed in every state that has chosen to place a sales tax on publications sold over the counter.
"States claim these new taxes are revenue-raisers, not taxes on knowledge. They say that the taxes are not the same as the so-called 'license to publish' that our Founding Fathers fought .. strongly against.
"But taxes on periodicals have, state by state, year by year, become every bit as threatening to free expression as the taxes on newspapers in colonial days.
"Why aren't the newspapers fighting back? As the U.S. Supreme Court said in 1936, taxes like this have the effect of curtailing the circulation of newspapers -- and particularly the cheaper ones, whose readers were generally found among the masses of the people.
"So, where is the press, the editorial alarmist, the richly funded trade associations, the noble First Amendment defenders? They are pathetically silent.
"The American Newspaper Publishers Association told me, 'because of limited resources, we don't get involved in each state.'
"Can you imagine James Madison saying, 'because of limited resources, I don't get involved'?
"Would Lincoln Steffens, the great press muckraker, have said, 'I don't want to get involved'?
"The great news organizations should wake up -- let's hear from them!"