MINNEAPOLIS — A jury ruled Friday that two newspapers broke an oral contract by identifying a confidential source and ordered them to pay $700,000 in damages.
Dan Cohen, a public relations executive who was promised anonymity in 1982 when he leaked damaging information on a political opponent, was awarded $200,000 in actual damages and $250,000 each in punitive damages from the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch.
The case raised the question of whether granting a source confidentiality constituted a contract. By a 5-1 margin, the Hennepin County jury ruled that it did.
"I believe this is absolutely unprecedented," said Floyd Abrams, a New York attorney and First Amendment expert. "If not reversed, this decision opens the door for an enormous range of real or imagined sources to claim that, in one way or another, they've been victimized by press."
Cohen burst into tears after the verdict and thanked the jury.
"It's very important to keep your word. That's the hard currency of journalism. That's the hard currency of politics," Cohen said. "When that currency is devalued, we all suffer."
The suit centered on a decision by editors at both newspapers to overrule their reporters and use Cohen's name. At the time, Cohen was a spokesman for Wheelock Whitney, an Independent-Republican candidate for governor.
Turns Over Documents
Six days before the election, Cohen gave reporters documents showing that Marlene Johnson, a Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate for lieutenant governor, admitted shoplifting $6 in merchandise. The documents were given on the condition that Cohen's identity not be revealed.
The Associated Press and WCCO-TV reported on the 1970 shoplifting charge--which was vacated in 1971 with no sentence--without identifying Cohen.
Both newspapers notified Cohen before the article was published that they intended to print his name, according to testimony. Cohen responded with a statement defending his decision to release the documents.
The day the stories appeared, Cohen was fired from his $35,000-a-year job as a public relations executive with an advertising agency, said his attorney, Elliott Rothenberg. Cohen claimed that he lost $725,000 in wages and pension.
Editors at both newspapers said Cohen's name was revealed because failing to do so would have misled readers. They said that keeping readers fully informed of election developments outweighed preserving his confidentiality.
Tim McGuire, managing editor of the Star Tribune, said the verdict most likely will be appealed.
In a related development, the Star Tribune announced Friday that it was recalling all 640,000 copies of its weekly Sunday Magazine because it contains an article by a free-lance writer that names a woman who contends she was promised anonymity.
Star Tribune Executive Editor Joel Kramer said the decision to withdraw the magazine was made by Publisher Roger Parkinson after editors concluded they could not determine if a pledge of anonymity had been given by the free-lancer who wrote the article.
An attorney for the woman, who was quoted in the article about serving as a juror during a rape trial, had threatened to sue if the article was published.