The Supreme Court decision in Mabee v. White Plains Publishing Co., 327 U.S. 178 (1946), emphasized that First Amendment protections for freedom of the press, although they shield newspapers against special taxes or regulations designed to impede their mission, do not exempt them from general governmental regulations that apply to them as businesses.

The respondent published a daily newspaper with a circulation of about 9,000 to 11,000 copies, of which only about one half of one percent went to out-of-state subscribers. Some of the newspaper’s employees sued in New York courts to recover overtime pay, liquidated damages, and counsel fees pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. A trial court in the New York state court system found for the petitioners, but the Appellate Division reversed and ordered that the complaint be dismissed, and the court of appeals affirmed without a written opinion. The case then proceeded to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice William O. Douglas’s opinion for the Court focused chiefly on interpreting the intent of Congress in adopting the Fair Labor Standards Act. He observed that Congress had specifically exempted weekly or semi-weekly newspapers with a circulation of less than 3,000 copies but made no similar exception for daily papers. In contrast to the situation the Court had addressed in Grosjean v. American Press Co. (1936), the regulations at issue were “not a ‘deliberate and calculated device’ to penalize a certain group of newspapers.” Douglas opined, “As the press has business aspects, it has no special immunity from laws applicable to business in general.” Congress intended to put papers “on a parity with other small town enterprises.” Being “engaged in the production of goods for commerce,” it is subject to the law.

Justice Frank W. Murphy did not base his solitary dissent on First Amendment grounds but on his view that Congress had not intended to apply the law to a business with so little effect on interstate commerce. In Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue (1983), the Court later invalidated a state tax that it thought discriminated against newspapers in general.

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