|Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. (90-634), 501 U.S. 663 (1991)|
90-634 -- OPINION
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Wash- ington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
Justice White delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question before us is whether the First Amendment prohibits a plaintiff from recovering damages, under state promissory estoppel law, for a newspaper's breach of a prom- ise of confidentiality given to the plaintiff in exchange for in- formation. We hold that it does not.
During the closing days of the 1982 Minnesota guberna- torial race, Dan Cohen, an active Republican associated with Wheelock Whitney's Independent-Republican gubernatorial campaign, approached reporters from the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch (Pioneer Press) and the Minneapolis Star and Tribune (Star Tribune) and offered to provide documents re- lating to a candidate in the upcoming election. Cohen made clear to the reporters that he would provide the information only if he was given a promise of confidentiality. Reporters from both papers promised to keep Cohen's identity anon ymous and Cohen turned over copies of two public court rec ords concerning Marlene Johnson, the Democratic-Farmer- Labor candidate for Lieutenant Governor. The first record indicated that Johnson had been charged in 1969 with three counts of unlawful assembly, and the second that she had been convicted in 1970 of petit theft. Both newspapers interviewed Johnson for her explanation and one reporter tracked down the person who had found the records for Cohen. As it turned out, the unlawful assembly charges arose out of Johnson's participation in a protest of an alleged failure to hire minority workers on municipal construction projects and the charges were eventually dismissed. The petit theft conviction was for leaving a store without paying for $6.00 worth of sewing materials. The incident appar- ently occurred at a time during which Johnson was emotion- ally distraught, and the conviction was later vacated.
After consultation and debate, the editorial staffs of the two newspapers independently decided to publish Cohen's name as part of their stories concerning Johnson. In their stories, both papers identified Cohen as the source of the court records, indicated his connection to the Whitney cam- paign, and included denials by Whitney campaign officials of any role in the matter. The same day the stories appeared, Cohen was fired by his employer.
Cohen sued respondents, the publishers of the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune, in Minnesota state court, alleging fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of contract. The trial court rejected respondents' argument that the First Amendment barred Cohen's lawsuit. A jury returned a ver- dict in Cohen's favor, awarding him $200,000 in compensa- tory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The Min- nesota Court of Appeals, in a split decision, reversed the award of punitive damages after concluding that Cohen had failed to establish a fraud claim, the only claim which would support such an award. 445 N. W. 2d 248, 260 (Minn. App. 1989). However, the court upheld the finding of liability for breach of contract and the $200,000 compensatory damage award. Id., at 262.
A divided Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the com pensatory damages award. 457 N. W. 2d 199 (Minn. 1990). After affirming the Court of Appeals' determination that Cohen had not established a claim for fraudulent misrepre sentation, the court considered his breach of contract claim and concluded that "a contract cause of action is inappropri- ate for these particular circumstances." Id., at 203. The court then went on to address the question whether Cohen could establish a cause of action under Minnesota law on a promissory estoppel theory. Apparently, a promissory es- toppel theory was never tried to the jury, nor briefed nor argued by the parties; it first arose during oral argument in the Minnesota Supreme Court when one of the justices asked a question about equitable estoppel. See App. 38.
We granted certiorari to consider the First Amendment implications of this case. 498 U. S. --- (1990).
Respondents initially contend that the Court should dis- miss this case without reaching the merits because the prom- issory estoppel theory was not argued or presented in the courts below and because the Minnesota Supreme Court's de- cision rests entirely on the interpretation of state law. These contentions do not merit extended discussion. It is ir- relevant to this Court's jurisdiction whether a party raised below and argued a federal-law issue that the state supreme court actually considered and decided. Orr v. Orr, 440 U.S. 268, 274-275 (1979); Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749, 754, n. 2 (1985); Mills v. Mary- land, 486 U.S. 367, 371, n. 3 (1988); Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 161-162 (1978); Jenkins v. Georgia, 418 U.S. 153, 157 (1974). Moreover, that the Minnesota Supreme Court rested its holding on federal law could not be made more clear than by its conclusion that "in this case enforce- ment of the promise of confidentiality under a promissory es- toppel theory would violate defendants' First Amendment rights." 457 N. W. 2d, at 205. It can hardly be said that there is no First Amendment issue present in the case when respondents have defended against this suit all along by ar- guing that the First Amendment barred the enforcement of the reporters' promises to Cohen. We proceed to consider whether that Amendment bars a promissory estoppel cause of action against respondents.
The initial question we face is whether a private cause of action for promissory estoppel involves "state action" within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment such that the protections of the First Amendment are triggered. For if it does not, then the First Amendment has no bearing on this case. The rationale of our decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), and subsequent cases com- pels the conclusion that there is state action here. Our cases teach that the application of state rules of law in state courts in a manner alleged to restrict First Amendment freedoms constitutes "state action" under the Fourteenth Amendment. See, e. g., id., at 265; NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 916, n. 51 (1982); Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767, 777 (1986). In this case, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that if Cohen could recover at all it would be on the theory of promissory estoppel, a state-law doctrine which, in the absence of a contract, creates obligations never explicitly assumed by the parties. These legal obligations would be enforced through the official power of the Minnesota courts. Under our cases, that is enough to constitute "state action" for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Respondents rely on the proposition that "if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then state officials may not constitutionally pun- ish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order." Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co., 443 U. S 97, 103 (1979). That proposition is unexceptionable, and it has been applied in various cases that have found insufficient the asserted state interests in pre- venting publication of truthful, lawfully obtained informa- tion. See, e. g., The Florida Star v. B. J. F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989); Smith v. Daily Mail, supra; Landmark Commu- nications, Inc. v. Virginia, 435 U.S. 829 (1978).
This case however, is not controlled by this line of cases but rather by the equally well-established line of decisions holding that generally applicable laws do not offend the First Amendment simply because their enforcement against the press has incidental effects on its ability to gather and report the news. As the cases relied on by respondents recognize, the truthful information sought to be published must have been lawfully acquired. The press may not with impunity break and enter an office or dwelling to gather news. Nei- ther does the First Amendment relieve a newspaper reporter of the obligation shared by all citizens to respond to a grand jury subpoena and answer questions relevant to a criminal in- vestigation, even though the reporter might be required to reveal a confidential source. Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972). The press, like others interested in publishing, may not publish copyrighted material without obeying the copyright laws. See Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broad- casting Co., 433 U.S. 562, 576-579 (1977). Similarly, the media must obey the National Labor Relations Act, Associ- ated Press v. NLRB, 301 U.S. 103 (1937), and the Fair Labor Standards Act, Oklahoma Press Publishing Co. v. Walling, 327 U.S. 186, 192-193 (1946); may not restrain trade in violation of the antitrust laws, Associated Press v. United States, 326 U.S. 1 (1945); Citizen Publishing Co. v. United States, 394 U.S. 131, 139 (1969); and must pay non- discriminatory taxes. Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105, 112 (1943); Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co. v. Min nesota Commissioner of Revenue, 460 U.S. 575, 581-583 (1983). Cf. University of Pennsylvania v. EEOC, 493 U.S. 182 , 201-202 (1990). It is therefore beyond dispute that "[t]he publisher of a newspaper has no special immunity from the application of general laws. He has no special privilege to invade the rights and liberties of others." Associated Press v. NLRB, supra, at 132-133. Accordingly, enforce- ment of such general laws against the press is not subject to stricter scrutiny than would be applied to enforcement against other persons or organizations.
There can be little doubt that the Minnesota doctrine of promissory estoppel is a law of general applicability. It does not target or single out the press. Rather, in so far as we are advised, the doctrine is generally applicable to the daily transactions of all the citizens of Minnesota. The First Amendment does not forbid its application to the press.
Justice Blackmun suggests that applying Minnesota promissory estoppel doctrine in this case will "punish" Re- spondents for publishing truthful information that was law- fully obtained. Post, at ---. This is not strictly accurate because compensatory damages are not a form of punish- ment, as were the criminal sanctions at issue in Smith. If the contract between the parties in this case had contained a liquidated damages provision, it would be perfectly clear that the payment to petitioner would represent a cost of acquiring newsworthy material to be published at a profit, rather than a punishment imposed by the State. The pay- ment of compensatory damages in this case is constitution- ally indistinguishable from a generous bonus paid to a con- fidential news source. In any event, as indicated above, the characterization of the payment makes no difference for First Amendment purposes when the law being applied is a gen- eral law and does not single out the press. Moreover, Jus- tice Blackmun's reliance on cases like The Florida Star and Smith v. Daily Mail is misplaced. In those cases, the State itself defined the content of publications that would trigger liability. Here, by contrast, Minnesota law simply requires those making promises to keep them. The parties them- selves, as in this case, determine the scope of their legal obligations and any restrictions which may be placed on the publication of truthful information are self-imposed.
Also, it is not at all clear that Respondents obtained Co- hen's name "lawfully" in this case, at least for purposes of publishing it. Unlike the situation in The Florida Star, where the rape victim's name was obtained through lawful access to a police report, respondents obtained Cohen's name only by making a promise which they did not honor. The dissenting opinions suggest that the press should not be sub- ject to any law, including copyright law for example, which in any fashion or to any degree limits or restricts the press' right to report truthful information. The First Amendment does not grant the press such limitless protection.
Nor is Cohen attempting to use a promissory estoppel cause of action to avoid the strict requirements for establish- ing a libel or defamation claim. As the Minnesota Supreme Court observed here, "Cohen could not sue for defamation because the information disclosed [his name] was true." 457 N. W. 2d, at 202. Cohen is not seeking damages for injury to his reputation or his state of mind. He sought damages in excess of $50,000 for a breach of a promise that caused him to lose his job and lowered his earning capacity. Thus this is not a case like Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), where we held that the constitutional libel stand- ards apply to a claim alleging that the publication of a parody was a state-law tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Respondents and amici argue that permitting Cohen to maintain a cause of action for promissory estoppel will inhibit truthful reporting because news organizations will have legal incentives not to disclose a confidential source's identity even when that person's identity is itself newsworthy. Justice Souter makes a similar argument. But if this is the case, it is no more than the incidental, and constitutionally in significant, consequence of applying to the press a generally applicable law that requires those who make certain kinds of promises to keep them. Although we conclude that the First Amendment does not confer on the press a constitu- tional right to disregard promises that would otherwise be enforced under state law, we reject Cohen's request that in reversing the Minnesota Supreme Court's judgment we re instate the jury verdict awarding him $200,000 in com pensatory damages. See Brief for Petitioner 31. The Min- nesota Supreme Court's incorrect conclusion that the First Amendment barred Cohen's claim may well have truncated its consideration of whether a promissory estoppel claim had otherwise been established under Minnesota law and whether Cohen's jury verdict could be upheld on a prom issory estoppel basis. Or perhaps the State Constitution may be construed to shield the press from a promissory es- toppel cause of action such as this one. These are matters for the Minnesota Supreme Court to address and resolve in the first instance on remand. Accordingly, the judgment of the Minnesota Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.