Supreme Court ruling: No 'personal privacy' for corporations

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Corporations have no right to "personal privacy" when it comes to government records requested under the Freedom of Information Act, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The court made short work of AT&T's argument in a dispute with the Federal Communications Commission. The telecommunications company had contended that because "person" is sometimes defined in federal law to mean a corporation as well as an individual, the company was entitled to a FOIA exemption that relates to "personal privacy."

"We trust that AT&T will not take it personally," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. concluded in a relatively taut opinion that was long on examples of how adjectives do not always "reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns."

Because the case was argued nearly a year to the day after the court loosened restrictions on corporate electoral spending in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it attracted outsized attention for any sign that the justices were ready to extend other privileges to corporations.

But Roberts did not mention last year's controversial case in his 12-page opinion, in which he seemed to find sport in spotlighting examples that undermined AT&T's semantic arguments.

The case began in 2004 when AT&T notified the FCC that it might have overcharged the government for some work. An investigation led to a settlement. The FCC released certain documents it had gathered but withheld others under exceptions in the law that cover trade secrets and individuals' right to privacy.

But when Comptel, a trade association representing some of AT&T's competitors, filed a FOIA request for more of the documents, AT&T went to court to keep the FCC from making the disclosure. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit agreed with AT&T's personal-privacy argument.

But Roberts said it was implausible to believe that Congress intended "personal privacy" to relate to corporate interests.

"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," Roberts wrote.

"Personal privacy" is an even greater problem, he said, because "two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation."

He provided an example: "We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold. A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky, and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed."

The government's appeal was brought while Justice Elena Kagan was President Obama's solicitor general, so she was recused from the case, as well as two other cases decided Tuesday. The government's position in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T was supported by a number of media companies, including The Washington Post Co.


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