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March 1, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Victory: Decision Rejects Theory That Corporations Have ‘Personal Privacy’ Rights Under FOIA

Statement of Adina Rosenbaum, Attorney, Public Citizen

Note: Public Citizen’s Adina Rosenbaum was co-counsel for the FOIA requester CompTel in the U.S. Supreme Court.

We applaud the U.S. Supreme Court for its decision this morning in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T holding that corporations do not have “personal privacy” rights under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). As the Supreme Court recognized, “personal privacy” is not a term that is used to refer to corporate interests.
The Supreme Court’s decision is an important victory for government transparency. 

If records could be withheld on the theory that they would “embarrass” a corporation, as AT&T had argued, the public would be deprived of important information about corporate wrongdoing and the government’s response to it. 

We are pleased that FOIA will be able to continue to be used as intended, as an important tool for democracy and accountability, and that corporations cannot block disclosure by claiming release of records would harm their “personal privacy.”

 The case stems from a FOIA request for records relating to an investigation by the FCC into alleged overbilling of the government by telecommunications provider AT&T.

AT&T had argued that all of the records relating to the investigation should be exempt from disclosure under a FOIA exemption that applies to law enforcement records whose release would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Although the exemption had always been understood to apply only to individuals’ privacy, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had sided with AT&T in a decision last year.

 Today, the Supreme Court reversed. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that personal privacy “suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns – not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.” 

The fact that “person” is defined for FOIA purposes to include corporations does not change the meaning of “personal.” As the court pointed out, the word “corny” has little to do with corn, and the word “crabby” does not refer either to a crustacean or an apple.

Read more about this case.

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