In 1934 the State of Louisiana introduced a law that imposed a tax on the income of newspapers with a circulation greater than 20,000 copies per week. Newspapers alleged that the U.S. Democratic Party Senator and former Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, who enjoyed immense political influence in the State, was behind this law. They claimed that the law was intended to punish the students at Louisiana State University who had published editorials critical of Long’s politics in their student newspaper.
Senator Huey P. Long
Image Credits: npr
The U.S. Supreme Court in Grosjean v. American Press Co. (1936) agreed. It struck down the law because it violated the freedom of press. The Court noted that while newspapers should not be exempted from ordinary taxation, the tax in this case, was ‘a deliberate and calculated device in the guise of a tax to limit the circulation of information to which the public is entitled in virtue of the constitutional guarantees.’
Fifteen years later, this case would make its way into the Indian Constituent Assembly. On 1 October 1949, Constituent Assembly members had taken up the Draft Constitution’s Seventh Schedule for debate. This provision distributed legislative powers between the Union and State legislatures. The power to tax newspapers was placed under the State Legislature’s control. Ramnath Goenka, who founded the Indian Express in 1932, proposed that this power be shifted to the Union. Responding to Goenka’s proposal, Deshbandu Gupta steered the discussion in the Assembly onto a more fundamental question: Does the taxation of newspapers violate freedom of speech and press?
Constituent Assembly Member Deshbandu Gupta
Image Credits: The Print
Gupta argued it did and passionately brandished the judgment in Grosjean v. American Press Co. to back him up. He read out excerpts from the judgement and told the Assembly that a tax on newspapers violated the Draft Constitution’s freedom of speech provision. He further pointed to the role of the Press in the freedom movement and argued that it was vital for the existence of a democracy.
In what might have been a pre-planned move, Jagat Narain Lal and Naziruddin Ahmad also stood up and read out from the same judgement. Narain referred to the judgment’s invocation of U.S. history—American colonies first resisted the British in 1765 when the British Government imposed duties on newspapers as a means to curtail criticisms against the government. Ahmad argued that even if the legislature had no ill intent, a tax on newspapers could mean curtailing circulation of newspapers and consequently lead to a suppression of opinion.
The Assembly President asked B.R. Ambedkar to respond to these interventions. Ambedkar said that to judge if a particular tax on newspapers violated freedom of speech or freedom of press, one had to ask—what was the nature and severity of the tax? From his reading, Grosjean did not ask these questions and therefore its invocation by Gupta and others was irrelevant.