U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Consults Its Dictionary, Rules Corporations Have No FOIA Right to Personal Privacy


The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that corporations do not have a right of personal privacy under freedom of information laws in an opinion that derided AT&T for its grammatical conclusions.

“We trust that AT&T will not take it personally,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote at the conclusion of his 8-0 opinion (PDF) for the court.

The court issued its decision against AT&T in less than six weeks, SCOTUSblog reports. “That’s super-fast,” the blog observes.

The case involves AT&T’s quest to keep secret information gathered in an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission. The company sought an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act for records that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

AT&T had argued that the Administrative Procedures Act defines the noun “person” to include corporations, and therefore the adjective “personal” should also include corporations. Roberts disagreed.

“Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always,” Roberts wrote. “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.’ … ‘Corny’ can mean ‘using familiar and stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,’ … which has little to do with ‘corn.’ … And while ‘crank’ is ‘a part of anaxis bent at right angles,’ ‘cranky’ can mean ‘given to fretful fussiness.’ ”

Because “personal” is not defined in the statute, Roberts wrote, it must be given its ordinary meaning. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision.

The AT&T opinion is in contrast to the controversial Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which treated corporations as persons with free speech rights to spend money in federal election campaigns.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog on Twitter, which highlighted Roberts’ line at the end of his opinion.

Story updated at 11:45 a.m. to include Roberts’ concluding comment.

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