Supreme Court rules corporations lack ‘personal privacy’

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[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] 8-0 in FCC v. AT&T [Cornell LII backgrounder] that the 7(C) “personal privacy” exemption [DOJ backgrounder, PDF] to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [text] request does not apply to corporations. AT&T [corporate website] had opposed the release of various documents, including invoices and e-mails with pricing and billing information, collected in the course of a Federal Communication Commission (FCC) [official website] Enforcement Bureau investigation regarding possible overcharging. The documents were sought by CompTel [association website], an industry association representing communications service providers, including some of AT&T’s competitors, as part of a request under FOIA. AT&T had argued that the “personal privacy” exemption applied to any legal “person,” including corporations. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court disagreed:

Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always. Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own. … 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. 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. … 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. 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.

The court also noted that a similarly worded exception to FOIA referenced “personal and medical files” precluding the interpretation that it referred to corporations. Justice Elena Kagan took no part in deciding the case.

The court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in the case in January. Under exemption 7(C), an agency can withhold information pursuant to an FOIA request if that information can reasonably be believed to be a violation of “personal privacy.” The issue of whether a corporation can be considered an individual for FOIA purposes has brought the court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC [JURIST report] to the fore in the minds of commentators [NLJ report]. In that case, the court eased restrictions on political campaign spending by corporations, a decision that has been strongly opposed by the Obama administration.

Read more detail on JURIST – Paper Chase

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