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Corporations Do Not Have Personal Privacy Rights in Government Records, Groups Tell U.S. Supreme Court

May 25, 2010 

Corporations Do Not Have Personal Privacy Rights in Government Records, Groups Tell U.S. Supreme Court

If Lower Court Ruling Stands, Government Might Withhold Critical Records About Mine Safety Violations, Problems at Oil Rigs

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Corporations should not be able to claim a personal privacy right to try to shield government documents about them from public view, six public interest organizations told the U.S. Supreme Court late Monday.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the groups urged the court to grant review of and overturn a lower court decision holding that corporations may invoke “personal privacy” as a legal basis for claiming that embarrassing records should be withheld from public view.

The case is Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T. The groups filing the brief – Public Citizen, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive, OpenTheGovernment.org, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press – urge the court to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

In that case, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had concluded that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) required the agency to release certain records concerning its investigation of AT&T for alleged overbilling of the government. AT&T sued the FCC to prevent the release of the records, claiming that release would constitute an unwarranted invasion of AT&T’s “personal privacy.” At AT&T’s urging, the Third Circuit extended FOIA’s “personal privacy” exemption for law enforcement records to corporations.

Unless the Supreme Court takes the case and reverses the Third Circuit decision, records about safety violations at a coal mine, environmental problems at an offshore oil rig, filthy conditions at a food manufacturing plant, financial shenanigans at an investment bank and many other records like these may be the subject of so-called corporate privacy claims that could result in agencies withholding those records from the public under FOIA.

“The number of now-public records that agencies and corporations may claim can be kept from the public if this lower court ruling stands is breathtaking,” said Margaret Kwoka, the Public Citizen attorney who wrote the brief. “We urge the Supreme Court to grant review and not allow important records to be withheld based on the idea that corporations have personal privacy interests.”

Kwoka noted that in crafting FOIA, Congress carved out an exemption for records that would reveal trade secrets.

 “Corporations’ valid competitive interests are already protected under FOIA,” Kwoka said. “They should not be allowed to circumvent the limits of those protections by shoehorning their fears of bad publicity into a FOIA exemption meant to protect only the intimate details of individuals’ lives.”

The brief is available at https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/fccamicus.pdf.

More information about the case is at https://www.citizen.org/our-work/litigation/cases/federal-communications-commission-v-att.

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit public interest organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.