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U.S. Supreme Court: Corporations have no personal privacy

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  1. Freedom of Information
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the concept of corporate personal privacy in its decision today in FCC v. AT&T, Inc.…

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the concept of corporate personal privacy in its decision today in FCC v. AT&T, Inc. AT&T sued to keep records withheld from disclosure under Exemption 7(c) of the Freedom of Information Act, which protects against the unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. AT&T claimed personal privacy protections extend to corporations. In a unanimous decision, the court held that Exemption 7(c) applied to individuals only.

AT&T was the subject of a government investigation in 2004 after discovering that it had overcharged the government for its participation in the government E-Rate program, which provided telecommunication and information services to schools and libraries. At the investigation's conclusion, ComTel — "a trade association representing some of AT&T's competitors" — filed an information request with the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC decided to disclose the documents, prompting AT&T to sue to enjoin their release.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) held that corporations have personal privacy rights under Exemption 7(c), agreeing with AT&T that the statutory definition of "person" should be extended to "personal." The FCC appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held oral arguments on the case in January.

Today's decision, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, focused extensively on the proper definition of the word "personal." AT&T argued that because "person" was defined within the statute as including corporations, the word "personal" should also include corporations. The Supreme Court held that this is not so: "Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always. Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own."

The court held that "personal" should be treated as a separate word from "person" and have its own, separate definition. It also held that the definition of "personal" does not include corporations. "When it comes to the word 'personal,' there is little support for the notion that it denotes corporations, even in the legal context . . . AT&T has given us no sound reason in the statutory text or context to disregard the ordinary meaning of the phrase 'personal privacy.'"

The Supreme Court also examined Exemption 7(c)'s relationship to two other exemptions: Exemption 4, which applies to corporations and protects trade secrets, and Exemption 6, which protects individuals from invasions of privacy through personnel or medical files. The court held that Congress' decision to use the same language in Exemption 7(c) as in Exemption 6 "is pertinent in construing Exemption 7(C)." Also pertinent is Congress' decision to use different language than that in Exemption 4, where Congress specifically used the term "person," which is defined as including corporations, the court held.

The court held finally that "[t]he protection in FOIA against disclosure of law enforcement information on the ground that it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy does not extend to corporations." The opinion concluded: "We trust that AT&T will not take it personally."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., commended the decision. "The American people have good reason to cheer today’s unanimous decision," he said.

Leahy also praised the court for honoring the congressional intent behind FOIA and the personal privacy exemption. "The Supreme Court’s well-reasoned decision is a timely boost that will help ensure FOIA remains a vibrant and meaningful safeguard for the American people’s right to know," he said.

CompTel, the original requester of the documents involved in the dispute, said it is "thrilled" with the court's decision. "The Court has reaffirmed the important principle that FOIA authorizes liberal disclosure of government records and that the exemptions must be narrowly construed."

CompTel added that, after six years, it "is looking forward to finally being able to review the requested records."

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, which was joined by 22 other media organizations. The brief argued that allowing corporations to claim personal privacy rights "would severely hinder the ability of journalists to investigate and report the actions of the country’s most powerful entities and at the same time frustrate the media’s ability to ensure that federal regulators are enforcing the law and keeping the public safe."