Corporations and "Personal Privacy"

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in FCC v. AT&T that corporations do not have “personal privacy” for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act. AT&T sought to prevent the disclosure of documents to the FCC as part of an investigation on the grounds that their release would invade the corporation’s personal privacy. AT&T argued that a section of the FOIA, 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(7)(C), provided an exemption shielding it from disclosing information that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”. It argued that the word “person” includes corporations and that “personal privacy” must also include corporations.

Despite concerns that the Court would expand its ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, recognizing the First Amendment rights of corporations, to broader contexts such as the FOIA, the Court disagreed with AT&T. The case did not address constitutional issues but used plain language in statutory interpretation. Chief Justice John Roberts’ 15 page opinion, reversing the Third Circuit opinion in 582 F.3d 490 (2009), used other adjectives to demonstrate that an adjective does not always reflect the same meaning as the corresponding noun as shown in this passage:

Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always. Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own. The noun “crab” refers variously to a crustacean and a type of apple, while the related adjective “crabbed” can refer to handwriting that is “difficult to read,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 527 (2002); “corny” can mean “using familiar and stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,” id., at 509, which has little to do with “corn,” id., at 507 (“the seeds of any of the cereal grasses used for food”); and while “crank” is “a part of anaxis bent at right angles,” “cranky” can mean “given to fretful fussiness.

In conclusion, Justice Roberts wrote perhaps the wryest closing sentence in the history of the Court: “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.”

With statutes being most of the relevant law heard in federal courts, judicial interpretation of those statutes has been the subject of great attention and dispute over the years. The Theory and Practice of Statutory Interpretation by Frank B. Cross (Call #KF425 .C76 2009) in the Brooklyn Law School Library has insights into the theory and practice of statutory interpretation by courts.