No Privacy Right For Corporations, High Court Says

Corporations cannot shield documents against public disclosure by claiming a “personal privacy” right, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. AT&T had sued the FCC to prevent the it from releasing internal AT&T documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request from AT&T competitors.

The FCC had obtained the documents from AT&T during an investigation of AT&T overcharging the government for services to schools and libraries. All documents held by federal agencies are subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) unless they fall under certain exemptions. AT&T had successfully blocked some disclosures under the exception for “trade secrets and commercial or financial information,” but AT&T additionally claimed that some documents would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” of the corporation.

In rejecting AT&T’s argument, Chief Justice John Roberts said that even though the term “person” includes corporations, that does not necessarily mean that “personal privacy” includes privacy of corporations. He noted many cases where related nouns and adjectives have widely differing meanings, such as “corn” and “corny,” and “crank” and “cranky.” He also pointed out that, in common usage, people say “personal” to mean the opposite of “business,” such as when talking about “personal expenses” and “business expenses.”

“Certainly,” Roberts wrote, “if the chief executive officer of a corporation approached the chief financial officer and said, ‘I have something personal to tell you,’ we would not assume the CEO was about to discuss company business.”

AT&T has not said what the documents contain, but at oral argument in January AT&T’s lawyer gave an example of the kind of document that would not be protected by the “trade secret” exception. He said emails between corporate officers disparaging customers could only be protected under a “personal privacy” exception.

The 12-page opinion (short by Supreme Court standards) was written by Chief Justice John Roberts for a unanimous court, excepting Justice Elena Kagan, who worked on the case while Solicitor General. The case was FCC v. AT&T.

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