Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. - Wikipedia

Cohen v. Cowles Media Co.
Argued March 27, 1991
Decided June 24, 1991
Full case nameDan Cohen v. Cowles Media Company, dba Minneapolis Star & Tribune Company, et al.
Citations501 U.S. 663 (more)
111 S. Ct. 2513; 115 L. Ed. 2d 586; 1991 U.S. LEXIS 3639; 59 U.S.L.W. 4773; 18 Media L. Rep. 2273; 91 Cal. Daily Op. Service 4796; 91 Daily Journal DAR 7417
Case history
Prior445 N.W.2d 248 (Minn. Ct. App. 1989); affirmed in part, reversed in part, 457 N.W.2d 199 (Minn. 1990); cert. granted, 498 U.S. 1011 (1990).
SubsequentAffirmed on remand, 479 N.W.2d 387 (Minn. 1992); on rehearing, 481 N.W.2d 840 (Minn. 1992).
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
Byron White · Thurgood Marshall
Harry Blackmun · John P. Stevens
Sandra Day O'Connor · Antonin Scalia
Anthony Kennedy · David Souter
Case opinions
MajorityWhite, joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy
DissentBlackmun, joined by Marshall, Souter
DissentSouter, joined by Marshall, Blackmun, O'Connor
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 663 (1991), was a U.S. Supreme Court case holding that the First Amendment freedom of the press does not exempt journalists from generally applicable laws.[1]

Dan Cohen, a Republican associated with Wheelock Whitney's 1982 Minnesota gubernatorial run, provided inculpatory information on the Democratic challenger for Lieutenant Governor, Marlene Johnson, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press in exchange for a promise that his identity as the source would not be published. Over the reporters' objections, editors of both newspapers independently decided to publish his name. Cohen consequently lost his job at an advertising agency. He sued Cowles Media Company, who owned the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In 1988, a jury of six found in Cohen's favor. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed. The United States Supreme Court, while refusing to reinstate the damages, remanded the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which reinstated the jury's original verdict of $200,000.

The Cowles Media Company was found liable based on a theory of promissory estoppel.

Opinion of the Court[edit]

The Supreme Court found, in a majority decision, that:

  1. Against respondent's claims that it had no jurisdiction: citing Orr v. Orr (1979), whether the arguments in inferior courts were federal law arguments was irrelevant, and moreover the Minnesota Supreme Court had used federal law and respondent had relied on First Amendment protection.
  2. Promissory estoppel being a state action, the Fourteenth Amendment applies, and hence the First Amendment is triggered, citing New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). However, since the state principle of promissory estoppel is a generally applicable principle, there is no specific application of the First Amendment to the press, over and above that of any other citizen, citing Associated Press v. NLRB (1937). Cohen had not used the promissory estoppel argument to avoid the hurdle of a libel case, but for identifiable pecuniary losses, distinguishing the case from Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell (1988). Consequently, any restriction on reporting was "incidental, and constitutionally insignificant" result of applying a generally applicable law.
  3. Deciding whether the claim under promissory estoppel was valid, and whether the state constitution shielded the press, was a matter for the Minnesota Supreme Court, and on that basis the request for reinstatement of damages was denied, and the case remanded to the inferior court.


Justice Blackmun's dissent focussed on the proposition that applying promissory estoppel punished the publication of truth.

Justice Souter's dissent was based on the balance of "the importance of the information to public discourse" to the other interests involved. In this case the potential effect of the publication of Cohen's identity on an election for public office was thought to be compelling.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 663, 669 (1991). Public domain This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.

Further reading[edit]

  • Rothenberg, Elliot C. (1999). The Taming of the Press: Cohen v. Cowles Media Company. Westport, CT: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-96601-1. This author was Cohen's lawyer at the original trial.

External links[edit]