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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Supreme Court Case Threatens to Expand "Personal" Rights for Corporations

The Supreme Court will hear arguments today in FCC v. AT&T Inc. The case hinges on whether a corporation has the same personal right of privacy that an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides to individuals.

FOIA requires government agencies to disclose most records requested in writing by any person, unless the record falls within one of nine exemptions. One of the categories protected from disclosure under FOIA is records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes when releasing the information would cause an unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy.”

Pointing to this exemption, AT&T claims that the FCC cannot disclose information about an investigation into claims of overcharges in a program through which AT&T provided equipment and services to schools. AT&T argues that releasing the records would be an invasion of its “personal privacy” under the statute. The Supreme Court must decide in this case if the personal privacy exception applies to corporations, or just people. If the Court sides with AT&T, it will continue to erase legal distinctions between the rights of human beings and the rights of corporations, and shield a company from alleged wrongdoing.

Last year at this time, a divided Court held in Citizens United that corporations had the same rights as people to spend money on political campaigns. The effect was to unleash a tsunami of corporate spending on the 2010 election, much of it from undisclosed sources.

An editorial in today's Washington Post points to the Citizens United decision as evidence of the Supreme Court's moves to protect corporate interests at the expense of individuals, and urges the Court not to make that same mistake in this case.

UPDATE: Slate - FCC v. AT&T reveals the limits of corporate personhood at the Supreme Court

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