Cohen v. Cowles Media Company

RESPONDENT:Cowles Media Company
LOCATION:Clark County Jail

DOCKET NO.: 90-634
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: Minnesota Supreme Court

CITATION: 501 US 663 (1991)
ARGUED: Mar 27, 1991
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1991

Elliot C. Rothenberg – on behalf of the Petitioner
John D. French – on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case

Cohen was a campaign associate in the 1982 Minnesota gubernatorial race. He gave court records concerning another party’s candidate for lieutenant governor to the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. Though he had received a promise of confidentiality from the reporters, the papers identified Cohen in their stories. He was fired as a result. Cohen sued the papers in state court, alleging a breach of contract. At trial, Cohen won compensatory damages and the state appellate court upheld the award. But the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed, ruling that Cohen’s claim relied on state “promissory estoppel” law, a law that essentially prevented a promisor from breaking a promise. The court ruled that the First Amendment’s free press guarantee prevented promissory estoppel from applying to the newspapers.


Does the First Amendment bar a plaintiff from recovering damages, under state promissory estoppel law, for a newspaper’s breach of a promise of confidentiality?

Media for Cohen v. Cowles Media Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 27, 1991 in Cohen v. Cowles Media Company

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 24, 1991 in Cohen v. Cowles Media Company

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 90-634 Cohen versus Cowles Media Company will be announced by Justice White.

Byron R. White:

This case for reasons that are stated in an opinion on file with the clerk, we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Minnesota and remand the case.

Justice Blackmun has filed a dissenting opinion.

He is joined by Justices Marshall and Souter.

Justice Souter has also filed a dissenting opinion.

Justices Marshall, Blackmun, and O’Connor had joined his opinion.