May 21, 2024

Do corporations have a "personal privacy" right?

Today, the Supreme Court released its unanimous opinion in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T Inc., No. 09-1279 (U.S. Mar. 1, 2011)

At issue was the question, “Does a corporation have a “personal privacy” right under the Freedom of Information Act?” In this decision, the United States Supreme Court said “no.” The decision was 8-0 with Associate Justice Kagan not participating in the decision.

What was the case about? A trade association sought disclosure of documents that AT&T had submitted to the FCC during an investigation. AT&T argued that the documents were exempt under FOIA Exemption 7(C), which prohibited disclosure of law enforcement records if the disclosure “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit accepted AT&T’s argument, and held that a corporation could have a “personal privacy” right because a corporation was a “person” under FOIA.

The Supreme Court disagreed. Looking at the express text of FOIA as well as the common meaning of words, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, held that, absent an express definition of “personal” in FOIA, that word refers to individuals and not corporate entities.

It should be noted that corporations are, for various purposes, considered “persons” under constitutional and common law. However, at issue was a question of statutory interpretation.

The Court even got in a good zinger at the end, noting that, “We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.”


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