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Privacy Law Blog

Justice Roberts: “This Isn’t Personal, and Neither Are Your Corporate Records”

Posted in FOIA

In a unanimous decision on March 1, 2011, the Supreme Court held in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T Inc. that corporations do not have personal privacy rights under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), reversing a 2009 Third Circuit decision (which we blogged about here).

The case arose because AT&T sought to block the disclosure of documents under the FOIA that it disclosed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during a 2004 investigation relating to AT&T’s alleged overbilling of public schools under a program created to enhance telecommunications and information services access for public schools and libraries.  Comptel, a trade association that represented some of AT&T’s competitors, submitted an FOIA request to access these documents.  The FCC complied with the request, but removed information that was considered “trade secrets and commercial or financial information” (5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4)) and information that “could be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” (5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(C), “Exemption 7(C)”).  However, the FCC did not remove information that was sensitive to AT&T.  

AT&T argued that no information should be disclosed under FOIA because the word personal as used under Exemption 7(C) applies to corporations.  AT&T argued that the definition of the word person includes legal entities, and therefore the definition of personal privacy should as well.  The Court rejected this proposition, deferring to the ordinary meaning of the word personal and holding that the word referred only to individuals.  The Court also indicated that when used together, the words personal privacy “suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns- not the sort associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.”  To lend further support to its decision, the Court also studied the rest of the statute and concluded that the existence of other exemptions available to entities under FOIA limited the scope of Exemption 7(C).     

Fittingly, Justice Roberts, who penned the opinion, closed with his hope that AT&T would not take the decision personally.