Monday, July 25, 2011

Supreme Court: Corporate privacy does not trump Freedom of Information Act

Originally published 3/4/11 on

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reports that the Supreme Court denied corporations the same privacy rights as individual citizens when the government is responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. This might seem like a no-brainer, but legally corporations are considered persons, so it was only a matter of time before a FOIA request came into conflict with a corporations 'personal' rights.

AT&T's lawyers argued that as a corporate citizen it was provided the same exemptions as a private citizen. A coalition of groups ranging from the EFF to the National Security Archive filed an Amicus brief explaining why corporations were not, and should not be, considered persons under FOIA. The Court obviously agreed with them. In agreeing with them, the Court picked apart the term "personal privacy," using definitions, precedents, and a little horse sense to overturn the lower courts decision. One of my favorite passages was the last paragraph of page 7 continuing onto page 8:

AT&T’s argument treats the term “personal privacy” assimply the sum of its two words: the privacy of a person.Under that view, the defined meaning of the noun “person,” or the asserted specialized legal meaning, takes on greater significance. But two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation. We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold. A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky, and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed. “Personal” in the phrase “personal privacy” conveys more than just “of a person.” It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns—not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.

The Supreme Court explains that the real meaning of a phrase can be more than the sum of it's parts, and shows that while a corporation may be a citizen on paper, it is not one in fact, and does not deserve the same privacy considerations as a living breathing person. They probably didn't need to go to all that trouble. As they explain, the FOIA already has protections for corporations. 

This was a good decision, and there was even some (perhaps ill advised) humor at the end. The concluding line of the decision said, "We trust that AT&T will not take it personally." While it seems obviously tongue in cheek to me, Lyle Denniston at the SCOTUSblog feels that the sentence contradicts the ruling. I would say he's just being contrary, but law is all about words, their meanings, and the way they're used in a document. That little joke could cause privacy advocates  and Supreme Court justices headaches in the future.