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Cohen v. Cowles Media Co.

The Press Is Subject To The Same Laws As All Citizens

The Supreme Court considered three principal questions. First, the publishers argued that the case should be dismissed because the promissory estoppel theory had not been argued in the lower courts. The Court quickly disagreed, citing several precedents which defended its jurisdiction regardless of whether or not a party had raised a federal law issue in a lower court. The second and most important issue was whether the First Amendment prevents a plaintiff from using a state promissory estoppel law to recover damages when a newspaper breaks a promise of confidentiality to the plaintiff. Writing for the majority, Justice White began by establishing that promissory estoppel is a state law doctrine that creates legal responsibilities which, though not expressly assumed by the parties, were still enforceable in Minnesota state courts. Thus, a promissory estoppel cause of action "involves state action within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, and therefore triggers the First Amendment protections."

However, he reasoned, the doctrine was applicable to all Minnesota citizens, not just to the press specifically. Thus, he said, the First Amendment did not require that a stricter scrutiny be applied to the enforcement of promissory estoppel against the press than would be applied to anyone else. The respondents had argued that publication of legally gathered, truthful news about public concerns was not punishable by the state. But Justice White concluded that the First Amendment did not insulate the press from any law which in any way limited its right to report the truth. In defense of this conclusion, he cited several prior decisions which had found that members of the press were subject to the same laws as all citizens. These decisions, Justice White wrote, supported the notion that

the publisher of a newspaper has no special immunity from the application of general laws. He has no special privilege to invade the rights and liberties of others.
Furthermore, he wrote, compensatory damages were not punishment in the criminal sense, but were "constitutionally indistinguishable from a generous bonus paid to a confidential news source."

Finally, Justice White maintained that any limitations on the press's right to report the truth resulting from the application of a general law like promissory estoppel were "incidental, and constitutionally insignificant." Therefore, he concluded, the First Amendment did not forbid the application of that law to the press. The final question before the Court was whether it should restore Cohen's damages award. The Court rejected the request. The issues of Cohen's verdict and the interpretation of Minnesota State Constitution, it felt, were matters for the Minnesota Supreme Court to address. On remand in 1992, Cohen's $200,000 jury award was reinstated to him by the Minnesota Supreme Court under promissory estoppel.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. - Significance, The Sacred Trust Between Reporter And Source, The Press Is Subject To The Same Laws As All Citizens