Cohen v. Cowles Media Co.

501 U.S. 663, 111 S. Ct. 2513 (1991)



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. The truthful information sought to be published must have been lawfully acquired. For example,First Amendment does not relieve a newspaper reporter of the obligation to respond to a grand jury subpoena and answer questions relevant to a criminal investigation, even though the reporter might be required to reveal a confidential source. 


During the 1982 Minnesota gubernatorial race, petitioner Cohen, who was associated with one party's campaign, gave reporters of Cowles Media Co. unfavorable information concerning the other party's candidate for lieutenant governor. Cohen provided this information after having received a promise from the reporters to keep his identity confidential. However, pursuant to a decision of Cowles Media Co.’s editorial staffs, Cohen's name was included in the newspapers' stories concerning the information. Cohen was consequently fired from his job after the stories were published. Alleging fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of contract, Cohen filed suit against the newspapers' publishers in Minnesota state court. A jury returned a verdict in Cohen’s favor and awarded him compensatory and punitive damages. The Court of Appeals of Minnesota set aside the award of punitive damages, on the ground that Cohen had failed to establish a fraud claim, but upheld the award of compensatory damages, on the ground that there was sufficient evidence to support the breach of contract claim. While the Supreme Court of Minnesota held that the printing of the informant's name did not support a fraud claim, and that the reporters' promise of confidentiality was not legally enforceable in a breach of contract action. Furthermore, the state supreme court ruled that Cohen’s claim was not sustainable under a theory of promissory estoppel, given that the enforcement of the promise under such a theory would violate Cowles Media Co.’s rights under the Federal Constitution's First Amendment.


Does the First Amendment bar a primary estoppel cause of action against the respondent Cowles Media Co.?




The Court held that the First Amendment does not bar a promissory estoppel cause of action against Cowles Media Co. Such a cause of action, although private, involves state action within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore triggers the First Amendment's protections, since promissory estoppel is a state-law doctrine creating legal obligations never explicitly assumed by the parties that are enforceable through the Minnesota courts' official power. However, the doctrine is a law of general applicability that does not target or single out the press, but rather is applicable to all Minnesota citizens' daily transactions. Thus, the Court held that the First Amendment does not require that its enforcement against the press be subject to stricter scrutiny than would be applied to enforcement against others, even if the payment is characterized as compensatory damages. Nor does that Amendment grant the press protection from any law which in any fashion or to any degree limits or restricts its right to report truthful information. Moreover, the Court noted that Cohen sought damages for a breach of promise that caused him to lose his job and lowered his earning capacity, and did not attempt to use a promissory estoppel cause of action to avoid the strict requirements for establishing a libel or defamation claim.  The Court concluded that any resulting inhibition on truthful reporting is no more than the incidental, and constitutionally insignificant, consequence of applying to the press a generally applicable law requiring it to keep certain promises.

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