Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. 501 U.S. 663 (1991)

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COHEN v. COWLES MEDIA CO. 501 U.S. 663 (1991)

Late in the 1983 Minnesota gubernatorial campaign, Dan Cohen, an active Republican, offered to provide politically sensitive documents to a Minneapolis Star and Tribune reporter. Cohen insisted his name not be mentioned, and the reporter promised confidentiality. Senior editors decided, however, to publish the documents and to cite Cohen as the source.

When the story appeared, Cohen was fired. He sued the newspaper for damages on the basis of the broken promise. A jury returned a verdict in Cohen's favor, but the Minnesota Supreme Court held that such an award would violate the freedom of the press. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the state court. A 5–4 majority, speaking through Justice byron r. white, relied on a "line of decisions holding that generally applicable laws do not offend the First Amendment simply because their enforcement against the press has incidental effects on its ability to gather and report the news."

Four Justices dissented, in an opinion by Justice david h. souter, arguing that a state's interest in granting damages for a broken promise is "insufficient to outweigh the interest in unfettered publication of the information revealed in this case." Justice harry a. blackmun also wrote a separate dissenting opinion, analogizing the case to hustler magazine and larry flynt v. jerry falwell (1988).

Robert M. O'Neil

(see also: Journalistic Practices, Tort Liability, and the Freedom of the Press.)