Institute for Justice · July 24, 2019

Charlottesville, Va.— Last summer, Charlottesville tax collectors sent Corban Addison a letter ordering him to pay thousands of dollars in business license taxes he had unknowingly been accruing since 2015. There’s just one problem with the city’s demand: Corban does not run a business or a storefront of any kind. He is simply a novelist who lives in Charlottesville. 

The city and surrounding Albemarle County are both targeting freelancers like Corban to raise revenue, but they’re not doing so evenhandedly. While the city and county punish freelance novelists, newspapers and magazines are exempt from the tax. That unequal treatment violates the First Amendment, which is why Corban and novelist John Hart are joining forces with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to stop this unconstitutional tax and keep their hard-earned income.

“Charlottesville taxes freelance writers while the traditional press is exempt. That’s unfair and unconstitutional,” IJ Attorney Renée Flaherty said. “Many writers pen novels and newspaper articles in the course of their career. In Charlottesville, one of these activities is charged a business license tax and the other is not.”

Business license taxes are typically meant to defray the cost of infrastructure that businesses and their customers use. But for freelance authors like Corban and John, there is no infrastructure to pay for. They write books.

“I’m not a business,” said John Hart, who specializes in literary thrillers. “I make a living off pure imagination. That’s it. It’s me at this table with an old laptop. I could do this same job sitting in a tree. I love living here, but I don’t understand why the county feels they should make money off me this way.”

Charlottesville’s business license tax is so broad, it allows the city to collect money for any “other repair, personal or business service, not specifically included” in the ordinance. In fact, the ordinance itself does not single out freelance writers at all. The law is simply so vague that local government officials are currently allowed to taxor not taxwhomever they wish. Albemarle County’s tax is similarly broad.

“There’s no mention whatsoever of freelancers of any kind in this law. It struck me that it wasn’t intended to cover me, but now the city has decided to come after me,” Corban said.

In addition to challenging Charlottesville and Albemarle County’s business license taxes on First Amendment grounds, IJ is challenging the taxes for being unconstitutionally vague under the Fourteenth Amendment. Ordinary freelance writers, like Corban or John, can’t look at the ordinances and figure out that they are subject to the tax. This gives Charlottesville and Albemarle County tax collectors too much power and discretion in seeking new sources of revenue.

“The First Amendment covers all speech equally, and doesn’t discriminate against any kind of speaker on any basis,” Corban added. “The First Amendment protects my writing as much as it protects newspapers and magazines.”

“Charlottesville prides itself on welcoming creative entrepreneurs, but the city’s business-license tax treats them like ATMs,” IJ Senior Attorney Paul Sherman said. “We are going to fight for the right of any writer to work without being unfairly targeted by tax collectors.”