June 24, 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 663 (1991), in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that freedom of the press does not exempt journalists from following generally applicable laws. Dan Cohen (HLS ’61), a Republican campaign associate in the 1982 Minnesota governor’s race, gave information about another party’s candidate to reporters at two local newspapers. Though Cohen had received a promise of confidentiality from the reporters, the papers divulged his name. Cohen lost his job and sued the papers in state court, alleging breach of contract. Cohen won at trial and on appeal, but the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed. Cohen appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The question before the Court was: Does the First Amendment bar a plaintiff from recovering damages, under state promissory estoppel law, for a newspaper’s breach of a promise of confidentiality? In a close 5-4 decision with two dissents, the Court ruled in favor of Mr. Cohen.
Cohen v. Cowles Media has been the subject of much debate and legal analysis in the past 25 years. It stands with New York Times v. Sullivan and a handful of others as a significant first amendment case involving the press.
Interested in learning more about what went on behind the scenes of this important case? Historical & Special Collections has the case files! Donated by Cohen’s attorney Elliot C. Rothenberg (HLS ’64), the collection consists of materials Mr. Rothenberg compiled and used in Cohen’s defense. HSC has many collections of case files, lawyers’ papers, and judges’ papers. If you are interested in a particular legal case, lawyer, or judge, search HOLLIS+ , the Harvard Library catalog.
We’re grateful to Mr. Rothenberg for sharing his collection with us, so we can share it with you. And his generosity does not end there: over the years, he has donated a number of HLS-related papers and artifacts to HSC, including the very baton he wielded as the Law School’s 1964 Class Marshal! Both baton and photo are on view through August 12, 2016 in the “academic regalia” section of the Library’s exhibit, What (Not) to Wear: Fashion and the Law.