Cohen v. Cowles Media (1990)

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Cohen v. Cowles Media (1990)
Court Minnesota Supreme Court
Citation 457 N.W.2d 199
Date decided 1990
Appealed from Minnesota State Court of Appeals
Related Cohen v. Cowles Media (1991)
Cohen v. Cowles Media (1992)
Overturned by
Cohen v. Cowles Media (1991)


The plaintiff, Dan Cohen, was promised by the defendants Northwest Publications, Inc. and the Pioneer Press that his name would not be disclosed in exchange for some documents which leaked information about a politician running in an upcoming election. They decided to print his name as the source of the information, against the reporter’s judgment.

Procedural History

The jury awarded Cohen $200,000 compensatory damages, and $250,000 punitive damages.

The appeals court set aside the punitive damages, because misrepresentation had not been proved.


Whether the first amendment prohibits 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.


The court considered enforcing the confidentiality promise under promissory estoppel, but the Minnesota Supreme Court ultimately decided to elevate the newspapers' First Amendment rights.

This 1990 holding is appealed to SCOTUS in Cohen v. Cowles Media (1991).




In deciding whether it would be unjust not to enforce the promise, the court must necessarily weigh the same considerations that are weighed for whether the First Amendment has been violated.



It seems that the law best leaves the parties to trust in each other, so that freedom of press is more important than enforcing this contract.