[VIEWPOINT]Press Taxes Led to American Revolution

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[VIEWPOINT]Press Taxes Led to American Revolution

Among the laws that existed during the colonial period of America, there was one called the Stamp Act, which was introduced in 1765.

The act was intended to raise funds for maintaining British troops in the American colonies.

The tax was levied on newspapers, magazines and books. So publishers who had complaints about the tax played a leading role in concentrating the people's desire for independence.

Eventually the Stamp Act is said to have acted as a catalyst in stimulating the independence movement that led to the United States.

Taxation with political purpose became an issue in American courts many years after the Stamp Act.

The Grosjean incident in 1936 is a prime example.

The Louisiana state legislature enacted a law levying a 2 percent tax on advertisements carried in newspapers with a circulation of more than 20,000 copies a week.

Only 13 of the 124 newspapers fell into this category. An influential state senator initiated this new tax legislation.

Coincidentally, 12 newspapers among the 124 had published editorials critical of the senator.

Before voting on the new tax bill, the senator and governor of Louisiana passed out pamphlets to the state senators, which denounced big newspapers. The pamphlet read, "Big newspapers are liars and taxation on them is taxation on lies."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that this tax act was unconstitutional. The ruling read, "In light of the background of the legislation, this tax act is an intended and well-calculated apparatus in the disguise of taxation in order to limit the distribution of information, which is guaranteed under the Constitution."

The Constitutional Court of South Korea has never directly reviewed the issue of taxation and freedom of the press.

There were some cases in which the court reviewed disputes over the business functions of press companies.

Most of the cases were related to the constitutionality of the media registration system under which media companies are required to provide themselves with printing facilities.

The following clause is found in one of the rulings in a case related to freedom of the press: "The constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press refers to methods and contents of expression that are fundamental to press freedom; the guarantee cannot be seen as extending to the activities of media executives."

Reading this passage gives the impression that regulations on the business aspect of the press do not infringe upon the freedom of the press.

But regardless of whether the passage gives such an impression or not, it is too simplistic to view it as guaranteeing freedom of the press completely removed from the guarantee of media companies' right to operate their business.

The core of freedom of the press today lies in maintaining the existing business operation at newspapers and broadcasting companies.

The alleged tax evasion by newspaper companies has turned the nation upside down. As for the complaints the National Tax Service filed with prosecutors, one side argues it is a fair administration of the tax system, and the other calls it a violation of press freedom. Who is right?

Newspaper companies are businesses. In this respect, applying various regulations, including tax laws, that are applied to other corporations on newspaper companies is right in principle.

A problem arises when the power to levy taxes is used to reach a certain end "in an intended and well-calculated apparatus in the guise of taxation."

Unfortunately, there are signs that the current incident may fall into this category.

First, the timing of the tax probe raises questions.

At the beginning of the Kim Dae-jung administration, the newspapers were not as critical as they are now.

Why probe the tax records of newspaper companies now? Has it anything to do with the fact that criticism of the administration by newspapers has intensified?

In addition, the fact that certain government and ruling party officials are describing the accused newspaper companies as ultra-conservative, reactionaries, etc. could be seen to imply that their report to prosecutors is not merely about tax evasion but that there are political motives behind the move as well.

Also, another fact is that a stricter set of regulations is being applied to newspaper companies, raising more suspicion that there are ulterior motives behind the tax probe.

This fiasco sends two messages that the Korean people should be aware of.

First, newspaper companies whose job it is to criticize various aspects of society should be clean and transparent themselves.

Second, the government should not abuse its power to tax by violating the constitution. These two messages should always be in mind as this drama continues.


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The writer is a professor of law at Hanyang University.

by Yang Kun

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