Corporations do not enjoy a right to personal privacy that would prevent disclosure of certain embarrassing documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
The unanimous decision came in a case examining whether telecommunications giant AT&T could claim an exemption from required disclosure under FOIA because government release of its documents to competitors would cause the corporation to suffer an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Lawyers for AT&T argued that the company was a private corporate citizen with personal-privacy rights that protect it from government disclosure of embarrassing documents.
The Supreme Court disagreed.
“The 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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 12-page decision.
He added: “We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.”
The case – a dispute over whether certain Federal Communications Commission investigative files should be released to the public – was closely watched in part because some legal analysts viewed it as a potential indicator of a pro-business bias at the high court.
Such criticism stemmed partly from a decision last year that struck down federal campaign-finance restrictions on independent corporate spending on political issues. The majority justices said corporations enjoyed the same free-speech rights as candidates, voters, and other citizens.
When the AT&T case arose, some suggested that if corporations have free-speech rights, then perhaps they have personal-privacy rights as well.
But the court did not see it that way. “We reject the argument that because ‘person’ is defined for purposes of FOIA to include a corporation, the phrase ‘personal privacy’ in Exemption 7(C) reaches corporations as well,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
The case stems from a FOIA request for documents created during an FCC investigation of alleged overbilling by AT&T.
The company disclosed the questionable activities to the government and eventually settled the allegations with no admission of wrongdoing. But a competing trade organization, Comtel, later filed a request under FOIA for all documents in the FCC’s investigative file.
The FCC refused to release many of the documents, citing FOIA exemptions that block disclosure of trade secrets and commercial information. The agency also refused to release AT&T documents disclosing information about AT&T employees out of concern that it would invade the personal privacy of the workers.
But the FCC refused to extend that same exemption, 7(C), to AT&T itself.
The FCC decided that the corporation could not claim protection for “personal privacy.” AT&T filed an appeal and won. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, ruled that AT&T was entitled to the exemption.
The question at the high court was whether FOIA allows a corporation to use the personal-privacy exemption to block release of potentially embarrassing documents in government files.
The case turned on how the court viewed Congress’s use of the term “personal privacy” in the statute.
“When it comes to the word ‘personal,’ there is little support for the notion that it denotes corporations, even in the legal context,” Roberts wrote.
“ ‘Personal’ in the phrase ‘personal privacy’ conveys more than just ‘of a person.’ It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns – not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T,” he wrote.
Roberts engaged in a comprehensive examination of the potential meaning of the words “person” and “personal” in the statute.
“ ‘Personal’ ordinarily refers to individuals. We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence, or personal tragedy as referring to corporations or other artificial entities,” he said. “This is not to say that corporations do not have correspondence, influence, or tragedies of their own, only that we do not use the word ‘personal’ to describe them.”
He added: “[W]e often use the word ‘personal’ to mean precisely the opposite of business-related: We speak of personal expenses and business expenses, personal life and work life, personal opinion and a company’s view.”