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U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh Whether Corporations Have ‘Personal Privacy’ Rights Under the Freedom of Information Act

Jan. 18, 2011  

U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh Whether Corporations Have ‘Personal Privacy’ Rights Under the Freedom of Information Act

Government Transparency, FOIA Expert Available for Interview

On Wed., Jan. 19, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a case that pits the rights of the American public to government information against the desires of big businesses to keep secrets. Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T presents the question of whether government agencies can withhold records from the public on the ground that their release would invade the “personal privacy” of corporations.

A ruling for AT&T in the case could have huge implications for the public’s right to know about major events. Recent investigations of national importance – such as those examining the activities of Goldman Sachs, BP and Massey Energy – demonstrate how crucial it is for the public to be able to access records obtained or created during government investigations into corporations’ activities. If corporations can claim their “personal privacy” would be invaded if records containing unfavorable information about their activities were released, the public would have a much harder time accessing information about events like the economic downturn and the oil disaster, and about the government’s reaction to them.

The Supreme Court case stems from a 2004 investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) into possible violations of the Communications Act and FCC regulations by AT&T. After the investigation ended, COMPTEL, a national trade association that represents communications service providers, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records about the investigation.  

AT&T sued the FCC to prevent the release of the records, claiming, among other things, that releasing them would violate the corporation’s “personal privacy” and that the records should therefore be withheld under FOIA exemption 7(C), which permits the withholding of law enforcement records where the release would be an unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy.” Until this case, that exemption had been understood to protect only human privacy interests. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, held that corporations have protected “personal privacy” interests under that exemption.

The FCC petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, and Public Citizen filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the petition. After the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Public Citizen became co-counsel for COMPTEL.

Please contact one of the numbers above to arrange an interview with Adina Rosenbaum, the Public Citizen attorney involved in the case. An expert on FOIA and government transparency, Rosenbaum has argued before the Supreme Court and can discuss the issues in the case and the implications for the public.

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