High court should rule against AT&T's 'personal privacy' request

Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 8:19 PM

IF CORPORATIONS must be treated as "persons" for the purpose of campaign contributions - as the Supreme Court mandated last year in the infamous Citizens United decision - why shouldn't they also enjoy "personal privacy"?

This bizarre question is at the heart of a case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court on Wednesday. The case threatens to weaken an important tool used to hold government and corporations accountable.

The dispute involves the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gives groups and individuals the opportunity to obtain information in the hands of executive branch agencies. FOIA is often used by muckrakers and news organizations to shake loose information about government activity as well as the workings of powerful business interests. (The Washington Post Co. is one of several media businesses urging the court to reject personal privacy rights for corporations under FOIA.)

Congress ensured that certain information would not be disclosed under FOIA. For example, trade secrets and other proprietary business information is shielded to prevent competitive damage. Breaches of "personal privacy" are also protected and have traditionally been used to prevent release of information concerning family or medical matters.

For the past three decades, the courts have interpreted the personal privacy provisions to apply only to individuals. And they have rightly construed the provision narrowly, rejecting, for example, even personal privacy claims by individuals when the information sheds light on their professional, rather than personal, life.

Despite this long tradition, AT&T was able to convince a federal appeals court in 2009 that corporations should also enjoy personal privacy protections. In that case, AT&T was trying to block certain disclosures linked to a FOIA request by a trade association that represents the company's competitors. The telecommunications giant and its allies argue that not all information gleaned in the course of a federal investigation - e-mail correspondence between employees, for example - should automatically be subject to disclosure. AT&T argues that the government should be forced to balance the "personal privacy" interests of the corporation against the public interest before releasing the information.

We hope the court will disagree. Corporations have legitimate interests in keeping confidential business information from public view - interests that Congress specifically and amply protected in FOIA. The court should not expand protections clearly crafted with individuals in mind to allow companies to shield an even broader swath of information from public scrutiny.

The justices risked serious damage to the country last year by putting businesses on equal footing with individuals and nullifying the government's compelling interest in preventing corporate spending from overwhelming the electoral system. The court should not repeat that mistake by again allowing corporations to masquerade as people.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company