In their bills usually resort to the...

BUSINESSES BEHIND

June 11, 1996

BUSINESSES BEHIND in their bills usually resort to the shopworn excuse, "The check is in the mail." But the owners of the Annapolis Capital came up with a much more creative approach to defend why the newspaper publisher hadn't paid more than $86,000 in city water and sewer fees. Its justification: Such fees violate its First Amendment rights.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals, in a scathing opinion, took great delight in eviscerating this argument. Labeling the argument "palpably absurd," the court said "there is not the slightest evidence" that the rates charged for the service had anything to do with the nature of the business. The court dismissed the assertion that the fees were an unconstitutional taxation of the press. The court said the effort of the owners to wrap themselves in the mantle of a 1936 precedent-setting First Amendment case was "totally unwarranted."

American publishers are the only businesses explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. But the special protections they enjoy deal with the content of their product. Within the limits of libel and obscenity laws, owners of American newspapers have wide latitude to say what they want.

Thirty-five years ago this week, the New York Times exercised its First Amendment rights and published the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the United States' involvement in Vietnam. When the Nixon administration succeeded in temporarily halting that paper from publishing the material, the Washington Post began printing the material it had obtained. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling, overturned the efforts to stop publication. It said the First Amendment was intended to protect exactly this kind of noble and courageous effort to inform the public.

This nation's founding fathers never intended the First Amendment to be used so that publishers could get a free ride at the expense of other businesses or taxpayers or evade laws that others must obey. The arrogance of the Annapolis newspaper's claim is breathtaking. To invoke one of the cornerstones of our democracy to justify the nonpayment of legitimate water and sewer service fees to the city of Annapolis is to trivialize this important constitutional provision.

Pub Date: 6/11/96

Hiding behind the First Amendment; Protection of free speech shouldn't be trivialized for free water.

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