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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Supreme Court Denies Corporations “Personal Privacy” Rights Under FOIA

In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts reversing the court below, the Supreme Court held today in FCC v. AT&T that a corporation cannot claim the “personal privacy” exemption under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA requires government agencies to disclose records requested in writing by any person, unless the record falls within one of nine exemptions, one of which protects records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes when releasing the records would be an unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy.” In this case, AT&T tried to claim that the Federal Communications Commission could not disclose to parties that filed a FOIA request information about its investigation that AT&T was overcharging for equipment and services it was supplying to schools. AT&T argued that releasing FCC's investigation records would invade its “personal privacy” under the statute.

The Court rejected AT&T's arguments. The court held that the term “personal,” which is not defined in FOIA, should be given its ordinary meaning given the context in which it was used, i.e., it refers to people. Thus, the phrase “personal privacy” is “simply the sum of its two words: the privacy of a person.” Moreover, the Court held, Congress included an exemption distinct from the personal privacy exemption for “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential,” concluding that the latter was intended to protect certain corporate interests while the former was not. The fact that the federal government has long interpreted the FOIA personal privacy exemption to refer to the privacy interests of individuals and not to corporations was cited as further support for the Court's holding.

One reason this case garnered attention is because, in Citizens United v. FEC, a 5-4 majority of the Court held that corporations had the same constitutional 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. With far less at stake, the Court in this case rejected the idea that Congress intended corporations to have “personal privacy” protections under FOIA.

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