Supreme Court Rules Corporations Do Not Have Privacy Rights under FOIA

In a March 1, 2011 decision that has received much publicity (despite stating a fairly obvious conclusion), the Supreme Court ruled that the term "personal privacy" does not apply to corporations, at least in the context of the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"). 

The decision, FCC v. AT&T Inc., reflects the Supreme Court application of a particular exemption to FOIA.  Exemption 7(C) covers law enforcement records the disclosure of which “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 5 U. S. C. § 552(b)(7)(C).  AT&T, having produced documents to the federal government, wanted that exemption asserted on its behalf, to block the government from responding to a FOIA request that would result in the production of AT&T’s documents.  

The Supreme Court held that Exemption 7(C) applies to individuals identified in AT&T’s submissions, but not to the company itself.  This conclusion was based on the principle that corporations do not have “personal privacy” interests as required by the exemption.  As Justice Alito noted in oral argument:  “in ordinary speech, the term ‘personal’ is not . . . used to refer to a corporation.  That’s . . . legalese.”

For corporations, this decision only reinforced what experienced counsel have known for a long time — be prepared for anything you turn over to the government to be shared with the public.

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