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Supreme Court Denies 'Personal Privacy' to Corporations 

Published March 2, 2011 at 4:02 p.m.

This week the U.S. Supreme Court denied AT&T's effort to have the term "personal privacy" extend to Freedom of Information Act requests involving its corporate personhood.

In AT&T v. the Federal Communications Commission, AT&T argued that the FCC should keep secret all records about the telecom giant gathered during an investigation into AT&T's participation in the federal E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries get Internet access.

A trade group filed a FOIA request regarding the FCC's investigation, and the FCC was about to release information, but AT&T sued, claiming a "personal privacy" exemption.

The court said that while corporations are often seen as a "person" under the law, the notion of personal privacy didn't extend to corporations.

In its ruling, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court provided both legal and grammatical reasons for rejecting AT&T's claim:

"AT&T’s argument treats the term 'personal privacy' as simply the sum of its two words: the privacy of a person.Under that view, the defined meaning of the noun “person,” or the asserted specialized legal meaning, takes on greater significance. But two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation. We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold. A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky, and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed. 'Personal' in the phrase 'personal privacy' conveys more than just 'of a person.' It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns — not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.

We reject the argument that because 'person' is defined for purposes of FOIA to include a corporation, the phrase 'personal privacy' in Exemption 7(C) reaches corporations as well. 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."

Gotta love that last line: "We trust that AT&T will not take it personally." Wait, didn't the court just rule that they can't, legally, take it personally?

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, applauded the ruling.

“The American people have good reason to cheer today’s unanimous decision," said Leahy. "Openness, transparency and accountability are American values, and this decision underscores their importance to our system of government. I am also pleased that, in reaching this decision, our highest court honored congressional intent about the narrow scope of the personal privacy exemption to FOIA."

The ruling is seen as a victory for people trying to curb, or roll back entirely, the notion of "corporate personhood." Last month, State Sen. Virginia "Ginny" Lyons (D-Chittenden) introduced a resolution that, if approved, would make Vermont the first state in the nation to call on Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution and ban the notion of "corporate personhood."

This Saturday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will host a town meeting on this topic of corporate personhood (and how the people can fight back) at Montpelier High School. The meeting will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday.
One focus of the town meeting will be a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission which allowed unlimited corporate and union spending in elections.
The town meeting will feature nationally-syndicated radio host Thom Hartmann, the author of Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became ‘People’ – And How You Can Fight Back.

Hartmann, who Talkers magazine ranked the most influential progressive voice on radio, first began to get national notoriety while broadcasting from his Montpelier home in 2004 (read this great profile by Ken Picard). He later moved to Oregon and now lives in Washington, DC. Every Friday he features a segment called “Brunch with Bernie” an hourlong segment with — who else? — Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Other panelists at the Saturday event include Rob Weissman, national president of Public Citizen; Cheryl Hanna, a constitutional law professor at Vermont Law School, and Sen. Lyons.

Download the US Supreme Court ruling: Download 09-1279

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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