The government may not discriminate against the press even if its motive has nothing to do with curbing press freedom. This is the broad safeguard of First Amendment rights endorsed by the Supreme Court in overturning Minnesota's tax on paper and ink used by newspapers.
Justice O'Connor, writing her first opinion on a First Amendment issue, proved a strong champion. A special tax on newspapers, she said, threatens to undercut ''the basic assumption of our political system that the press will often serve as an important restraint on government.''
The decision does not rule out subjecting newspapers to general economic regulations. Does this invite applying general sales taxes to newspapers? It need not. So far only six states do so. Most should be expected to hold out against this form of taxing the flow of information, even as the Supreme Court has rejected the tax that a lower court had upheld in Minnesota.