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US Supremes trash AT&T's claims to 'personal privacy'

Ma Bell not exempt from FOIA

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The US Supreme Court has made it official: AT&T and other corporations have no right to personal privacy under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a unanimous ruling (PDF), the high court shot down arguments that the Federal Communications Commission shouldn't have to turn over documents compiled during an investigation from 2004. The information concerned allegations that AT&T overcharged the government for assistance in an FCC-administered program to build out advanced telecommunications and information services to schools and libraries.

The documents included responses to interrogatories, invoices and emails containing pricing and billing information.

A trade association called CompTel invoked the FOIA in a request that sought all pleadings and correspondence in the FCC's investigation files. After the FCC agreed to turn over some of the material, AT&T objected and cited a section of the FOIA that exempts “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes” that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

AT&T lawyers argued that Congress has defined the word “person” to include corporations as well as individuals. The phrase “personal privacy,” they said, should therefore be construed to include information that would embarrass the corporation.

The US Supremes flatly rejected AT&T's reasoning. Under established precedent, the high court said, federal courts apply standard definitions to words contained in statutes, unless a statute provides its own specialized definition. Congress may have provided a specific definition for “person,” but it doesn't automatically transfer to the adjectival form of that noun.

“Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own. As support, he contrasted the difference between “crab” and “crabbed,” “corn” and “corny,” and “crank and cranky.”

“We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence, or personal tragedy as referring to corporations or other artificial entities,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “This is not to say that corporations do not have correspondence, influence, or tragedies of their own, only that we do not use the word 'personal' to describe them.”

The decision also noted that other FOIA provisions already exempt trade secrets that belong to corporations. Justice Elena Kagan was recused from the case.

“We reject the argument that because “person” is defined for purposes of FOIA to include a corporation, the phrase “personal privacy” in Exemption 7(C) reaches corporations as well,” Roberts wrote in summary. “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. We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.” ®

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