The Taming of the Press: Cohen v. Cowles Media Company

The Taming of the Press: Cohen v. Cowles Media Company

The Taming of the Press: Cohen v. Cowles Media Company

The Taming of the Press: Cohen v. Cowles Media Company

Synopsis

Cohen v. Cowles Media Company changed the course of First Amendment media law. After a quarter century of decisions interpreting the First Amendment to give media organizations preferential treatment, the Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that the Constitution did not give the press immunity from the laws ordinary citizens must obey. The American Bar Association quarterly Communications Lawyer (Spring 1998) calls Cohen a "media law hall of fame case." The author, who was the plaintiff's sole attorney in all phases of the case, provides detailed analysis of the complexities of constitutional litigation and the strategic and tactical considerations involved in formulating constitutional arguments in the Supreme Court and other courts.

Excerpt

It did not have, at first blush, the ingredients of a landmark Supreme Court case. It began as a routine transaction among politicians and journalists in the coverage of the waning days of a not very exciting campaign for governor. Just another day at the politicians' office, or so it seemed.

A group of prominent businessmen, lawyers, and academicians who were leaders of Wheelock Whitney's campaign for governor in Minnesota met early one morning in the last week of October 1982 at the Whitney headquarters to discuss newly discovered information about Marlene Johnson, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. One of the participants, a former state legislator and Hennepin County (Minneapolis) attorney, had photocopied some public court records at the St. Paul courthouse. the chairman of this group, a former head of the Minnesota Republican party, had learned of the court documents a couple of days earlier. the three pages of court files revealed that in 1970 Ms. Johnson had been convicted of an unspecified offense of "petit theft" and had also been arrested for unlawful assembly at a construction site. the petit theft document contained an entry indicating that the conviction was vacated in 1971. the election would be held the following week, and Whitney and other Republican candidates were trailing in opinion polls. the group debated whether and how the documents should be shared with the media. After arguing about whether the disclosures would make any difference at that late date, the participants decided to give the media the . . .

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