Cohen v. Cowles Media and the Quill Pen Tradition

Thirty years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 663 (1991), a leading freedom of the press case in which the Court decided that freedom of the press does not exempt journalists from following generally applicable laws. Learn more about the background and significance of Cohen v. Cowles in our blog post from 2016, when we commemorated its 25th anniversary. How time flies …

Attorney and HLS alumnus Elliot C. Rothenberg (HLS ’64) represented Dan Cohen (HLS ’61) in the case, and subsequently donated his Cohen v. Cowles Media case files to the HLS Library, where they are open for research. Over the years Rothenberg has generously donated legally significant, interesting, and unusual materials to the library’s Historical & Special Collections – pertaining to Cohen v. Cowles or his time as a student at HLS. Check out one such example – Rothenberg’s HLS Class Marshal baton from 1964 – in the post linked above.

White goose quill pen given to Rothenberg March 27, 1991, by U.S. Supreme Court for oral arguments before the court in Cohen v. Cowles, 1991. Gift of Elliot C. Rothenberg, HLS 1964. Acc. no. 2002.10.

Mr. Rothenberg also donated to HLS the goose quill pen given to him when he argued Cohen v. Cowles before the Supreme Court. According to this website about U.S. Supreme Court traditions, “Quill pens have remained part of the Courtroom scene. White quills are placed on counsel tables each day that the Court sits, as was done at the earliest sessions of the Court.” This pen is an artifact that links SCOTUS and HLS history, and our alumni members’ connection to both. We are grateful to Elliot Rothenberg for forging another link in that shared history.

In these polarized times, it is heartening to learn that the connections forged during Cohen v. Cowles remain strong today. Rothenberg shares: “I am pleased to report that the three major HLS players in the case – the others being Dan Cohen of course and Paul Hannah, the lead counsel for the St. Paul newspaper – are still with us. All the survivors of the case, on each side, have become friends. That is what is nice about the legal profession.”

Lesley Schoenfeld contributed to this post.

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