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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with 22 media organizations, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court Monday in support of the Federal Communications Commission’s appeal of a lower court ruling that would allow AT&T Inc. to claim personal privacy rights under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The FCC is asking the high court to decide whether corporate entities such as AT&T can claim the same privacy rights as an individual under Exemption 7(c) of the federal FOIA, which prevents public disclosure of personal information in law enforcement records if such disclosure “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
The case started in April 2005 when CompTel, a communications industry association representing some of AT&T’s competitors, filed a FOIA request with the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau to obtain information regarding an FCC investigation of AT&T for contract work the company had done for the government. When AT&T petitioned the FCC opposing CompTel’s request, arguing that the documents were collected by the FCC for “law enforcement” purposes and were thus exempt from disclosure under 7(c), the FCC repeatedly rejected AT&T’s claim, holding that the exemption does not apply to corporations.
AT&T then appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.), which overruled the FCC’s finding, writing in its opinion that “FOIA’s text unambiguously indicates that a corporation may have a ‘personal privacy’ interest within the meaning of Exemption 7(c).”
“The notion that corporations have personal privacy rights under FOIA is startling and frightening,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. “It is clear that Congress had the privacy of individuals in mind when it adopted exemption 7(c). There are plenty of other exemptions in the federal law that corporations can rely upon to protect sensitive business information.”
In its brief, the Reporters Committee argued Exemption 7(c) is meant to apply only to individuals in order to “protect intimate, personal details unrelated to business conduct,” and that FOIA firmly rejects the application of personal privacy protections for “attempts to avoid disclosure of embarrassing business information.” The brief also pointed out that Exemption 4 of federal FOIA, which protects against disclosure of information that could result in competitive harm, “has repeatedly been held not to cover embarrassing information or information that may tarnish reputation.”
Also at stake in this case is journalists’ ability to collect and report information to the public about actions taken by corporations that could affect public health, safety and welfare, the Reporters Committee’s brief argued.
“Creating a new category of privacy for corporations would create a severe impediment to journalists . . . that depend on FOIA to enable their ‘watchdog’ function of monitoring government agencies and their regulatory functions and through them the corporate power structure,” the brief said.
Oral argument in the case is scheduled to be heard in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 19, 2011.