High Court to AT&T: Don’t Take It Personally, But You Have No “Personal Privacy”

By Bruce Nielson.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that AT&T and other corporations do not have “personal privacy” for purposes of an exemption from the information disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). In its unanimous opinion in FCC v. AT&T Inc., the court rejected “the argument that because ‘person’ is defined for purposes of FOIA to include a corporation, the phrase ‘personal privacy’ in [FOIA] Exemption 7(C) reaches corporations.” The court held: “The protection in FOIA against disclosure of law enforcement information on the ground that it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy does not extend to corporations.”

The AT&T case arose in connection with an FCC investigation into whether AT&T overcharged the government for services rendered in connection with an FCC-administered program designed to enhance access to information and telecommunications services by schools and libraries. During the investigation, AT&T provided documents to the FCC that included information about employees involved in the program and invoices and emails with pricing and billing information. The FCC and AT&T resolved the matter in 2004.

Several months after resolution of the matter, a trade association that included competitors of AT&T submitted a FOIA request to the FCC seeking disclosure of all pleadings and correspondence on file regarding the AT&T investigation. The FCC withheld some of the requested information under FOIA Exemption 7(C), which exempts from disclosure “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes” that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” However, the FCC applied that exemption only with respect to the personal privacy of individuals identified in the documents provided by AT&T. The FCC expressly concluded that Exemption 7(C) does not apply to corporations such as AT&T.

AT&T sought review of the FCC’s decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. That court rejected the FCC’s reasoning and ruled that “a corporation may have a ‘personal privacy’ interest within the meaning of Exemption 7(C).” The FCC petitioned for review by the Supreme Court, which reversed the Third Circuit.

The Supreme Court rejected the argument that the word “personal” in FOIA Exemption 7(C) incorporated the statutory definition of the word “person,” which includes corporations and other “artificial” entities. The Court was careful to point out that it was not deciding “the scope of a corporation’s ‘privacy’ interests as a matter of constitutional or common law.” Rather, the question before the Court was solely “whether Congress used the term ‘personal privacy’ to refer to the privacy of artificial persons in FOIA Exemption 7(C).”

And yes, after holding that the phrase “personal privacy” in FOIA Exemption 7(C) does not refer to corporations such as AT&T, the Supreme Court said, “We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.”

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