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Supreme Court: No ‘Personal Privacy’ Rights for Corporations Under Freedom Of Information Act

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that corporations do not have the same privacy rights as individuals when it comes to blocking requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act, the federal statute that requires the government to make available certain documents and records.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the language of the transparency law clearly precluded corporations like AT&T, the plaintiff in the case, from claiming it had “personal privacy” rights that could prevent the public release of certain requested information on file with government agencies. The case arose when a trade association representing some of AT&T’s competitors sought access to information the company had submitted to the Federal Communications Commission as part of an investigation into whether it had overcharged the government for services provided to schools and libraries. AT&T sued to block release of the information.

Roberts wrote: “AT&T’s argument treats the term ‘personal privacy’ as simply the sum of its two words: the privacy of a person. Under that view, the defined meaning of the noun ‘person,’ or the asserted specialized legal meaning, takes on greater significance. But two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation. 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. ‘Personal’ in the phrase ‘personal privacy’ conveys more than just ‘of a person.’ It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns — not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.”

The ruling will not necessarily result in the release of all (or even most) corporate records submitted to regulators or investigators. The Information Act contains a number of other “exceptions” upon which corporations like AT&T may rely in seeking to block information from being made public through FOIA requests.

The decision came just six weeks after the justices heard oral argument in the case, a quick turnaround that suggested, along with the unanimous decision and Roberts’ relatively short 15-page ruling, that the court did not view the matter as a particular close call. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from consideration or deliberation in the case because of her work on it as solicitor general.

By: Andrew Cohen, Legal Analyst-Politics Daily, March1, 2011

March 1, 2011 - Posted by | Privacy, Supreme Court | , , , ,

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