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Cohen v. Cowles Media Co.

Cohen v. Cowles Media Co.


Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. 


One of the most expansive rights granted in the Constitution is the First Amendment right to freedom of the press.  The Supreme Court has historically been very reluctant to place any but the most necessary regulations on newspapers and news magazines.  Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. is a 1991 case that established rules for journalists writing stories that incorporated sources who had requested anonymity as a condition for talking about a controversial subject.  The case has since been cited by over 300 other court cases in the United States.


Who Was Cohen And What Did He Do?


Dan Cohen worked for an advertising firm that was working for the Republican gubernatorial campaign of Wheelock Whitney.  In a meeting of Whitney's advisors, Cohen found out that the nominee for Lieutenant Governor on the Democratic ticket, Marlene Johnson, had a previous arrest record for shoplifting 12 years before.  Cohen and his bosses decided that he would go to media sources with the story, on the strict condition that the media sources not reveal that the salacious story came from within the Whitney campaign.


Cohen talked to several different papers, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  The papers agreed to the condition of anonymity, but when they contacted Johnson about the story, she said she had been under a great deal of stress due to the death of her father at the time of the arrest and that she had simply forgotten to pay for her item (a $6 sewing kit) at age 24.


The reporters ran the story differently than they told Cohen they would.  Instead of a story about Johnson's shoplifting, they told the story of how the Whitney campaign, especially Dan Cohen, was trying to disparage Johnson in the press.  Cohen was immediately fired and had difficulty finding work afterward.


The Doctrine of Promissory Estoppel


Cohen sued the two newspapers that had reported on his name in direct violation of the promises they had made, and the Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. case was born.  His attorneys invoked the doctrine of promissory estoppel in their arguments.  Essentially, promissory estoppel is a doctrine in contract law that states that once someone has “detrimentally relied” upon a promise, the person who made that promise is legally bound to keep it.  The newspapers claimed in Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. that freedom of the press meant that the doctrine of promissory estoppel could not apply to them.


The case went through several levels of jurisprudence, and when the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against Cohen, he appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.


The Supreme Court's Decision


In a 5-4 ruling, the United States Supreme Court said in Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. that the doctrine of promissory estoppel could be applied to the Cohen case, and ruled in his favor.  The court cited Cohen's expectations of anonymity at the time of giving the story to the newspapers, and noted that he had in fact detrimentally relied upon the promises made by both the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.