10 Most Important U.S. Supreme Court Cases for Journalists


Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. (1982)

Dan Cohen, a Republican campaign associate for 1982 Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Wheelock Whitney, gave court records about the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor to various newspapers in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The newspapers had promised him confidentiality, but identified him anyway. He was fired, and Cohen sued the Cowles Media Company in state court for breach of contract. He won compensatory damages and the state appellate court upheld the award. However, the state supreme court in Minnesota reversed the lower court’s decision, saying that Cohen’s claim relied on the state’s promissory estoppel law, a statute that prevents someone from breaking a promise. The court ruled that the First Amendment’s freedom of the press guarantee prevented promissory estoppel from applying to the newspapers.

The Supreme Court tackled the question of whether the First Amendment bars a source from recovering damages if a newspaper doesn’t it fulfill its promise of confidentiality.

It decided that the First Amendment doesn’t prevent a promissory estoppel suit against the press, ruling that Minnesota’s promissory estoppel law applied to individuals or institutions. In this case, the First Amendment didn’t protect the press from breaking a promise to its sources.