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Cohen v. Cowles Media Company/Dissent Souter

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinions

Justice SOUTER, with whom Justice MARSHALL, Justice BLACKMUN and Justice O'CONNOR join, dissenting.

I agree with Justice BLACKMUN that this case does not fall within the line of authority holding the press to laws of general applicability where commercial activities and relationships, not the content of publication, are at issue. See ante, at 674. Even such general laws as do entail effects on the content of speech, like the one in question, may of course be found constitutional, but only, as Justice Harlan observed,

"when [such effects] have been justified by subordinating valid governmental interests, a prerequisite to constitutionality which has necessarily involved a weighing of the governmental interest involved. . . . Whenever, in such a context, these constitutional protections are asserted against the exercise of valid governmental powers a reconciliation must be effected, and that perforce requires an appropriate weighing of the respective interests involved." Konigsberg v. State Bar of California, 366 U.S. 36, 51, 81 S.Ct. 997, 1007, 6 L.Ed.2d 105 (1961).

Thus, "[t]here is nothing talismanic about neutral laws of general applicability," Employment Division, Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. ----, ----, 110 S.Ct. 1595, 1612, 108 L.Ed.2d 876 (1990) (O'CONNOR, J., concurring in judgment), for such laws may restrict First Amendment rights just as effectively as those directed specifically at speech itself. Because I do not believe the fact of general applicability to be dispositive, I find it necessary to articulate, measure, and compare the competing interests involved in any given case to determine the legitimacy of burdening constitutional interests, and such has been the Court's recent practice in publication cases. See Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 108 S.Ct. 876, 99 L.Ed.2d 41 (1988); Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co., 433 U.S. 562, 97 S.Ct. 2849, 53 L.Ed.2d 965 (1977).

Nor can I accept the majority's position that we may dispense with balancing because the burden on publication is in a sense "self-imposed" by the newspaper's voluntary promise of confidentiality. See ante, at 671. This suggests both the possibility of waiver, the requirements for which have not been met here, see, e.g., Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 145, 87 S.Ct. 1975, 1986, 18 L.Ed.2d 1094 (1967), as well as a conception of First Amendment rights as those of the speaker alone, with a value that may be measured without reference to the importance of the information to public discourse. But freedom of the press is ultimately founded on the value of enhancing such discourse for the sake of a citizenry better informed and thus more prudently self-governed. "[T]he First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw." First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 783, 98 S.Ct. 1407, 1419, 55 L.Ed.2d 707 (1978). In this context, " '[i]t is the right of the [public], not the right of the [media], which is paramount,' " CBS, Inc. v. FCC, 453 U.S. 367, 395, 101 S.Ct. 2813, 2829, 69 L.Ed.2d 706 (1981) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367, 390, 89 S.Ct. 1794, 1806, 23 L.Ed.2d 371 (1969)), for "[w]ithout the information provided by the press most of us and many of our representatives would be unable to vote intelligently or to register opinions on the administration of government generally." Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 492, 95 S.Ct. 1029, 1044, 43 L.Ed.2d 328 (1975); cf. Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 573, 100 S.Ct. 2814, 2825, 65 L.Ed.2d 973 (1980); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 278-279, 84 S.Ct. 710, 725, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964).

The importance of this public interest is integral to the balance that should be struck in this case. There can be no doubt that the fact of Cohen's identity expanded the universe of information relevant to the choice faced by Minnesota voters in that State's 1982 gubernatorial election, the publication of which was thus of the sort quintessentially subject to strict First Amendment protection. See, e.g., Eu v. San Francisco County Democratic Central Committee, 489 U.S. 214, 223, 109 S.Ct. 1013, 1020, 103 L.Ed.2d 271 (1989). The propriety of his leak to respondents could be taken to reflect on his character, which in turn could be taken to reflect on the character of the candidate who had retained him as an adviser. An election could turn on just such a factor; if it should, I am ready to assume that it would be to the greater public good, at least over the long run.

This is not to say that the breach of such a promise of confidentiality could never give rise to liability. One can conceive of situations in which the injured party is a private individual, whose identity is of less public concern than that of the petitioner; liability there might not be constitutionally prohibited. Nor do I mean to imply that the circumstances of acquisition are irrelevant to the balance, see, e.g., Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524, 534-535, and n. 8, 109 S.Ct. 2603, 2610, and n. 8, 105 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989), although they may go only to what balances against, and not to diminish, the First Amendment value of any particular piece of information.

Because I believe the State's interest in enforcing a newspaper's promise of confidentiality insufficient to outweigh the interest in unfettered publication of the information revealed in this case, I respectfully dissent.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).