Supreme Court: No "Privacy" for Corporations

by Gavin Baker, 3/1/2011

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that corporations are not subject to the personal privacy exemption of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The 8-0 ruling in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T overturned a lower court ruling in AT&T's favor, which transparency advocates had worried could have imposed significant new barriers to public access to information.

In the case, AT&T tried to block the FCC from disclosing government records related to the company in response to a FOIA request. AT&T argued that disclosure would harm the corporation's "personal privacy," a grounds for withholding under FOIA.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the court's opinion, which held that corporations do not have "personal privacy" for the purposes of a FOIA exemption. (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself: as Solicitor General, she represented the government in an earlier stage of the case.)

Regardless of the status of a corporation as a legal "person," Roberts wrote, the word "personal" means something entirely different:

Certainly, 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. … In fact, we often use the word "personal" to mean precisely the opposite of business-related: We speak of personal expenses and business expenses, personal life and work life, personal opinion and a company's view.

In closing, Roberts wrote, "We trust that AT&T will not take it personally."

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