ACLU of RI Resolves First Amendment Lawsuit Over State’s Discrimination Against Non-Fiction Authors

Posted: Sep, 24, 2019

The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced the favorable resolution of a lawsuit it filed in May, challenging the state Division of Taxation’s position that a special sales tax exemption for Rhode Island authors applied only to works of fiction, and not to non-fiction, because non-fiction was not considered “creative and original.” The lawsuit argued that making such a distinction on the content of the work violated the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The ACLU dismissed the case today after confirming that the authors who applied for exemptions since the suit was filed have had them granted by the Division.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA) and three Rhode Island non-fiction writers who had previously been advised by state officials of their ineligibility for the tax exemption. Last year, for example, Lucie Contente, one of the plaintiffs, applied for an exemption for a fiction book and two non-fiction books she had written, but received a certificate for only her work of fiction.

The law at issue, enacted by the General Assembly in 2013, is designed to promote the work of local writers and artists. It exempts from the sales tax “original and creative works” sold by writers, composers, and artists residing in Rhode Island. At some point, however, the Taxation Division and the RI State Council on the Arts advised ARIA members that non-fiction books were not “original and creative works,” and therefore not eligible for the tax exemption.

After the suit was filed by ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger, the three authors named as plaintiffs in the suit, as well as other members of ARIA, filed requests for a sales tax exemption for their non-fiction works, and they were granted, making the lawsuit moot and prompting today’s dismissal of the case. The ACLU and ARIA plan to monitor future author requests for exemptions to ensure that the law continues to be applied in a non-discriminatory manner.

ARIA is a non-profit organization whose membership includes more than three hundred Rhode Island writers, and whose mission is to raise awareness of, and promote, local authors, and educate students about the publishing industry. Besides Contente, the other plaintiffs were Steven Porter, a writer and the President of ARIA; and Paul Caranci, who has written numerous non-fiction books on a variety of Rhode Island topics.

Plaintiff Caranci said today: “I am very grateful to the Division of Taxation and the RI State Council on the Arts for the work they have now done in support of ARIA’s request to include non-fiction books on the list of works qualifying for tax exempt status for local artists. I believe that their inclusion of non-fiction books both reflects the true artistry of such works and keeps with the original legislative intent of promoting local artists.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “It is more than appropriate to see this lawsuit resolved during Banned Books Week. The state’s previous discriminatory implementation of the sales tax law was untenable, and we trust that going forward, the state will now continue to treat all Rhode Island authors the same when it comes to granting an exemption under the law.”

Additional information about the lawsuit, ARIA v. Savage, can be found here.