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August 23, 2012 / Corina Valderrama

Corporations Do Not Have Privacy Rights

Today’s decision in FCC v. AT&T relieves many concerns that the Supreme Court would further bring corporations’ rights in line with personal protections.

Last year in Citizen United, the Court overturned restrictions on corporate campaign spending holding that they violated the First Amendment.  The decision to give corporations the same right as individuals to influence the electoral process was highly criticized by many, including President Obama, and ignored 200 year old case law stating that corporations are artifical entities, not people, subject to government oversight and limited to the powers attributed to them.  (Head & Armory v. Providence Ins. Co.)

AT&T involved a request from CompTel, a trade association representing some of AT&T’s competitors, for documents that AT&T filed with the FCC.  AT&T wished to withold these documents by applying exemption 7(c) in the Freedom of Information Act relating to law enforcement records, the disclosure of which “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”  If the Court held that corporations were allowed to use this exemption, the decision would have a chilling effect on what is available to journalists and other researchers.

However, in a unanimous decision today, the Court held that corporations do not have the right to personal privacy and thus cannot withhold documents filed with the government from pubilc disclosure.

AT&T’s argument to include corporations within the exemption was a linguistic one.  It argued that since Congress had previously defined “person” to include corporations, then “personal” should also include corporations.  The Court did not agree with this simplistic arguement and noted that the word “personal” does not necessarily derive from “person.”

The Court pointed out that although nouns typically reflect their related adjective, this is not always the case. For example, the noun “crab” refers to a crustacean and a type of apple, while the related adjective “crabbed” can refer to handwriting that is “difficult to read,” “corny” can mean “using familiar and stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,” which has little to do with “corn,”  Likewise, “personal” does not simply mean “pertaining to a particular person.”

AT&T also attempted to argue that “personal privacy” simply referred to the privacy of a person. However, breaking up the two words ignores the fact that words together can assume a particular meaning than when in isolation.

The Supreme Court concluded that AT&T’s interpretation conflicts with the common usage of the term “personal” and ultimately held that Congress intended the personal privacy exemption to apply to invdividuals, not corporations.  This grammatical distinction will keep corporations’ rights limited, for now.




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