Taxing Book Sales to Fund Libraries Considered in Rhode Island

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In an unfortunate illustration of taxing Peter to pay Paul, on May 1, members of the Rhode Island Senate proposed an additional one percent sales tax on all books sold in Rhode Island by any retailer. According to the amendment offered by State Senators Rhoda Perry, Frank Ciccone, and Juan Pichardo, the tax generated would be used by cities and towns exclusively for free public libraries.

Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, who alerted Rusty Drugan, executive director of New England Booksellers Association, said that this bill was initiated by state legislators in the face of a growing budget deficit, which will approach $225 million, as reported by the Pawtucket Times.

The bill, 2003-S 1051, and its companion bill, 2003-S 1057, which includes a number of proposed tax hikes along with the book tax, was introduced to the Rhode Island Senate on May 1, and immediately referred to the State Finance Committee. The Finance Committee met on Thursday, May 8, and held an open hearing for the bills.

Brown and Sarah Zacks, owner of the 11-year-old Books on the Square in Providence, appeared before the committee to speak against the one percent "book tax." Zacks told BTW, "My points to the committee were that we, libraries and bookstores, are all in the business of keeping people reading and improving literacy. By taxing books extra, the Senate was equating bookselling with selling cigarettes and alcohol," which she described as "punitive." Zachs said she told the committee that "the state of Rhode Island might better consider making book sales like food or clothing -- not taxed because they are considered essential."

Brown raised the issue of the constitutionality of an additional tax on books. He explained, "Our opposition is that the government and legislatures are not allowed to single out certain media for taxing. When you single out any type of media for an additional penalty you are interfering with the transmission of information, which is protected by the First Amendment. There are not enough cases on point to say it's unconstitutional, but we expressed our concern about an additional penalty for books. Why should they tax people more to read a book than to eat a donut? As a matter of policy, the state should be encouraging reading not punishing people who buy books."

The Media Coalition, a broad-based national organization whose members include the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the International Periodical Distributors Association, and the Magazine Publishers of America, as well as motion picture, recording, and video game manufacturers and recording, video, and video game retailers, wrote a strongly worded memo to the Rhode Island Legislature opposing the one percent book tax. The memo was distributed to all Committee members at the hearing and was referenced in Brown's remarks.

The Media Coalition wrote that "while we strongly support the very laudable goal of supporting public libraries, we believe that singling out one type of speech for taxation is likely unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has made it clear that it will not permit a tax levied solely on First Amendment-protected material. In 1983, the Court held that the power to single out the press with special taxes could be used to coerce or even destroy it and therefore violates the First Amendment [Minneapolis Star v. Minnesota Commission of Revenue, 460 U.S. 575]."

The future of the bill is uncertain. Brown told BTW, "There didn't seem to be much enthusiasm for the bill in the committee, but they could call it up for another hearing and bring it to the full Senate for a vote."

Zacks was optimistic about the dismissal of the bill. "Many people seemed to agree with us. One committee member stood up and said he wanted to second my opinion. The temporary chair of the meeting also said she agreed. A representative from the Providence Library System said that the bill reached the committee too quickly for anyone to have analyzed it or formed an opinion. No one seemed inclined to push for it," Zachs said.

For complete copies of the two bills in PDF form, click here:

For more on the Media Coalition, go to --Nomi Schwartz