The American Civil Liberties Union this week filed suit against the State of Rhode Island, arguing that a policy by the state’s Division of Taxation discriminates against the state’s nonfiction authors and runs afoul of the First Amendment.
The suit revolves around a 2013 law designed to help creative workers by offering authors, composers and artists in Rhode Island a sales tax exemption. But in a bizarre twist, state tax officials have decided the law applies only to authors of fiction, because nonfiction is not “creative and original.”
In a statement last fall, ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown urged state officials to reverse their position, saying the state’s reading of the law is “wholly unsupported by any meaningful understanding of the writing process,” and has put the state in the “dubious role of making wholly subjective, and ultimately arbitrary” determinations about works of art.
“The Division of Taxation has no business deciding whether nonfiction novels like Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood are entitled to a sales tax exemption for the author based on a person’s determination as to whether they are novels or works of nonfiction,” Brown points out, as an example of the slippery slope the state now occupies. “How would the Division treat an award-winning book like Persepolis, which is a graphic autobiography, nonfiction told in drawings? Why is a dull and wholly derivative piece of fiction automatically deemed ‘original and creative’ where Charles Darwin’s revolutionary evolutionary theory in On the Origins of Species would never be?”
The suit seeks a court order barring the state from excluding nonfiction works from the sales tax exemption.