Cohen v. Cowles Media Co.

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Cohen v. Cowles Media Co.
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued March 27, 1991
Decided June 24, 1991
Full case name Dan Cohen v. Cowles Media Company, dba Minneapolis Star & Tribune Company, et al.
Citations 501 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
Prior history Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Minnesota
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority White, joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy
Dissent Blackmun, joined by Marshall, Souter
Dissent Souter, joined by Marshall, Blackmun, O'Connor

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

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the Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press in exchange for a promise that his identity as the source would not be published.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.

Supreme Court opinion[edit]

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

  1. Against respondent's claims that it had no jurisdiction: citing Orr v. Orr, 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. (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan) 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. (Associated Press v. NLRB) Cohen had not used the promissory estoppel argument to avoid the hurdle of a libel case, but for identifiable pecuniary losses. (Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell distinguishes.) 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.


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

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]

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. 


  1. ^ 501 U.S. 663 (1991), full text of the opinion courtesy of