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Cohen v. Cowles Media Co.

Citation. 501 U.S. 663 (1991)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Cohen gave information to reporters on the condition of confidentiality. The reporters later revealed his identity. Cohen sued on the grounds that they broke their promise to him.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The First Amendment does not prohibit a plaintiff from recovering damages under state promissory estoppel law


Cohen approached reporters during a gubernatorial race. He offered to provide documents relating to a candidate, making it clear that he would provide the information on condition of anonymity. They promised, and he turned over two public court records concerning a candidate showing that she had been charged with unlawful assembly and convicted of petty theft 12-13 years before.

Two of the newspapers independently decided to publish Cohen’s name as part of their stories. Cohen was then fired by his employer, and he sued the newspapers.


Does the First Amendment prohibit a plaintiff from recovering damages under state promissory estoppel law, for a newspaper’s breach of a promise of confidentiality, given to the plaintiff in exchange for information?


No, it does not.


Justice Souter (Marshall, Blackmun, O’Connor)

Laws of general applicability can restrict First Amendment rights just as effectively as those directed specifically at speech itself.

The State’s interest in enforcing a newspaper’s promise of confidentiality does not outweigh the interest in unfettered publication of information.


It is well-established that generally applicable laws do not offend the First Amendment simply because their enforcement against the press has incidental effects on its ability to report the news.

The information sought to be published must have been lawfully acquired.

The Minnesota doctrine of promissory estoppel is a law of general applicability. The First Amendment does not forbid its application to the press.

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