Georgia Media Violations Law Firm

Atlanta Breach of Promise of Anonymity Lawyers

Breach of promise of anonymity/confidentiality  (Cohen v. Cowles violation)

Many media companies actively seek out “inside sources” for stories involving sensitive issues. These stories often concern issues of public importance, such as political corruption or public safety issues. In exchange for providing source information critical for certain types of stories, journalists may promise the source that they will maintain strict confidentiality. When such promises are made and then broken, a source that expected anonymity may lose his or her job, and may suffer financially as a result. Broken promises of confidentiality give rise to actionable claims as confirmed by the Cohen v. Cowles decision of the United States Supreme Court, described below.

During the 1982 Minnesota gubernatorial race, Dan Cohen, a campaign adviser to the Republican candidate, leaked damaging information about the Democratic candidate to reporters from the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers after they promised not to identify him as their source. Editors at the two papers, over the objection of the reporters, broke the promise of confidentiality and identified Cohen. Cohen was fired from his job and he sued the papers for fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of contract. 

A trial court awarded Cohen $200,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The Minnesota Court of Appeals said Cohen failed to establish a fraud claim and reversed the punitive damages award. It upheld the finding of breach of contract and the compensatory damages award. But the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the compensatory damages award, holding that enforcement of confidentiality under contract law would violate the newspapers' rights because identifying Cohen amounted to an editorial decision protected under the First Amendment. 

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the First Amendment does not forbid the general application of Minnesota's contract law to the press even if it has incidental effects on news gathering and reporting. Justice Byron White wrote that the newspapers' First Amendment claim was “constitutionally insignificant” and that contract law “requires those who make certain kinds of promises to keep them” (p. 2519). The Court directed the Minnesota Supreme Court to reconsider whether Cohen's claim could be upheld under an oral contract doctrine or if Minnesota's Constitution could be interpreted to shield the press from Cohen's claim.  http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=501&invol=663

The Atlanta media violations attorneys at our firm have successfully handled claims of this nature against media giants on both the east and west coast. For more information, please feel free to contact us.

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