Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), citizens have a right to obtain documents from federal agencies. However, agencies may withhold documents from request for several reasons, including to protect “personal privacy.” Does the exemption for “personal privacy” protect the privacy of corporations in addition to that of individuals? In its recent decision in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T, the Supreme Court ruled that it does not.
In everyday conversation, we often use the terms “personal” and “business” to refer to opposites: we say “it’s not business, it’s personal” (or vice versa). So the idea that a business could plausibly claim to possess “personal privacy” rights may seem absurd.
However, laws commonly use the term “persons” to refer to both business entities and human beings alike (where they wish to refer only to persons of the flesh-and-blood variety, laws typically use the term “individuals”). Indeed, the Administrative Procedure Act (which contains FOIA) specifically states that “person” means both individuals and businesses. AT&T argued to the Supreme Court that the term “personal privacy” in FOIA referred back to this definition — since AT&T is a person within the law’s meaning, it must have “personal privacy” rights.
The Supreme Court was not persuaded. In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court noted that adjectives frequently take a different meaning from the nouns from which they derive (e.g. corn vs. corny), so the Court need not assume the word “personal” in “personal privacy” is based on the law’s definition of “person.” Instead, the Court chose to give “personal privacy” its ordinary meaning — that is, referring to the privacy of individuals. Thus, a company may not claim that agencies should withhold documents from public requests via FOIA on the ground that their release would threaten the company’s privacy.
The Chief noted with an implied wink at the end of the opinion that in ruling against AT&T, “[w]e trust that AT&T will not take it personally.”