Company Privacy Rights Questioned by U.S. Justices

The U.S. Supreme Court, hearing arguments in a case involving AT&T Inc., questioned whether a corporation can challenge the release of government documents as an infringement of the company’s privacy rights.

The justices today voiced skepticism about a lower court decision letting corporations invoke a federal provision that protects against invasions of “personal privacy.” The Obama administration is appealing the ruling, saying it would improperly restrict the Freedom of Information Act, a document disclosure law.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg was one of several justices who signaled she would side with the government. “Personal” almost always refers to individuals in federal statutes, not to corporations, she said. “Overwhelmingly, personal is used to describe an individual, not an artificial being,” she said.

AT&T, the largest U.S. phone company, is trying to block disclosure of documents connected to a 2004 Federal Communications Commission investigation into the company’s billing practices under a government school-technology program. AT&T reached a $500,000 settlement with the FCC that year.

CompTel, a trade association representing companies that compete with AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc., filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2005, seeking access to the investigation file.

Including Corporations

In interpreting the phrase personal privacy, a federal appeals court pointed to the statute’s definition of person as including corporations. The appeals court said that definition suggests that personal includes corporations as well.

Chief Justice John Roberts dismissed AT&T’s argument that since “person” is defined in the statute to include corporations, “personal” should too, citing examples where adjectives differed from their root noun.

“You have ‘craft’ and ‘crafty.’ Totally different,” he said. “Crafty doesn’t have much to do with craft. ‘Squirrel,’ ‘squirrely.’ Right? I mean, pastor -- you have ‘pastor’ and ‘pastoral.’ Same root, totally different,” Roberts said.

The government argues that the most natural meaning of personal covers only individuals and that AT&T’s reasoning would also let foreign, state and local government agencies assert a privacy interest.

Personal privacy would be a “very strange phrase” to describe a company, Justice Antonin Scalia told Geoffrey Klineberg, an attorney for AT&T. AT&T has the “burden to show the exemption was intended to include corporations,” rather than the other way around, Scalia said.

Klineberg urged the court to protect companies that may be embarrassed by private communications between executives, such as an e-mail critical of a regulator or a customer. Applying personal privacy only to individuals would mean a document could be released, though with names of people redacted, he said.

“Those interests are legitimate and just need to be balanced,” Klineberg said. The government should “weigh the private interests in the documents against the articulated public interest in disclosure.”

Scalia was skeptical that privacy should bar disclosure of anything that could embarrass a company.

Klineberg said he wanted protection for documents that “could harm the goodwill” of the company toward its customers.

The Obama administration contends that AT&T is seeking to change the decades-old understanding of the document disclosure law.

“A corporation’s interest in maintaining its business reputation has not been regarded as a personal privacy interest,” said Anthony Yang, a Justice Department lawyer.

Justice Elena Kagan, who took part in the case when working as a Justice department attorney, didn’t participate in the arguments.

Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, is one of 23 media organizations urging the court to side with the government.

The case is Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T Inc., 09-1279.

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