Sorry, AT&T: Corporations Probably Don't Have 'Personal Privacy'

Sorry, AT&T: Corporations Probably Don't Have 'Personal Privacy'For the past 35 years, whenever someone has used the Freedom of Information Act to ask for documents the government obtained as part of a law enforcement investigation, the government has had to assess whether their release would violate a human being's personal privacy. If so, the government had to redact or withhold the documents.

On Wednesday, AT&T tried to convince the Supreme Court that documents violating a corporation's personal privacy should be withheld too. Thankfully, the justices' questions were so deeply skeptical of this concept that it's hard to imagine the court agreeing with AT&T (T) when it ultimately decides the case later this year.

AT&T's core argument was this: Since a corporation is often defined in law -- including a case-relevant one -- as a "person," and "personal" is the adjectival form of "person," then the "personal privacy" exemption to the Freedom of Information Act must apply to corporations too. The argument was persuasive to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which ruled for AT&T.

Chief Justice John Roberts dismantled that logic this way:
I tried to sit down and come up with other examples where the adjective was very different from the root noun. It turns out it is not hard at all. You have craft and crafty. Totally different. Crafty doesn't have much to do with craft. Squirrel, squirrely. Right? I mean, pastor -- you have a pastor and pastoral. Same root, totally different.
Justice Antonin Scalia took the linguistic criticism of AT&T's claim a step further, saying:
"Personal," yes, can indeed apply to corporations sometimes; but there are certain phrases where it certainly does not. For example, you talk about personal characteristics. That doesn't mean the characteristics of General Motors. You talk about personal qualities. It doesn't mean the qualities of General Motors. You talk about a point of personal privilege. It's not a privilege of a corporation. And I think personal privacy is the same thing. Can you give me any examples in common usage where people would refer to the personal privacy of a -- of a corporation?
AT&T's unlucky attorney could not find a way to say yes.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was baffled by what kind of information a corporate personal privacy exemption would protect, since trade secrets, financial information and other confidential information are already protected, and employees' personal privacy is protected. When she asked for an example, AT&T's attorney suggested
for example, a series of e-mails among corporate officers -- granted, whose own personal names and identifying information have been redacted -- but in those e-mails, they may engage in a frank exchange about the competence and intelligence of a would-be regulator of the corporation.
That suggestion prompted Justice Antonin Scalia to pounce:
Excuse me. Why does that relate to their privacy? I don't understand that. Why does that relate to the corporation's privacy interest? Anything that would embarrass the corporation is -- is a privacy interest?
AT&T's counsel basically said yes, meaning the government should have to weigh the potential corporate embarrassment against the public's right to know. The justices were not impressed.

Win or Lose, AT&T's Already Won


After further questioning, AT&T's lawyer fessed up to AT&T's real motive in the case: It wanted to shield information from its competitors that the exemptions for confidential, trade secret and financial information didn't cover. AT&T's lawyer claimed that over the years, the courts had made those exemptions too narrow. So now AT&T wanted to start using the personal privacy exemption to widen them. So it should come as no surprise that this case came about because a trade group representing AT&T competitor asked the government for documents from a government's investigation of AT&T, in this case for overcharging the city of New London, Conn., for telecommunications equipment.

Given that the case has taken six years to get this far, and the documents have not been turned over yet, perhaps even in losing the war, AT&T will have won the battle -- the information that was being sought is undoubtedly pretty stale now.

The case is a good reminder, however, of just how far our legal system has gone in equating corporations and people. Remember, AT&T won at the appellate court level.

On the other hand, if the justices follow through on the inclinations expressed during Wednesday's argument and vote against AT&T, it's a good reminder that the Roberts Court isn't uniformly pro-corporate, despite its Citizens United decision. That case, which eliminated restrictions on corporate campaign contributions, is being "celebrated" Friday by a two-pronged event near the Capitol in Washington D.C., the "We the Corporations" vs. "We the People" Rally.

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moore732

I don't understand how a corporation could be considered a 'person' for the purpose of political donations (a judgement that ranks with Dredd-Scott as one of the worst in my opinion), but not for privacy. A corporation by it's own charter is allways an entity to enrich it's stockholders, it has no allegiance to anything else or a moral baseline that would constrict it's goal in enriching itself. This would define a sociopath if it where an actual person in society.
I have seen so much damage done by propaganda by Fox News and the dessimination of outright lies, biased reporting and innuendo that it is staggering. Now corporations can fund any amount to promote those who support them, and these people can and will say anything to gain more power.

January 25 2011 at 12:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ez_Mail@Hotmail.com

Did I Ever Say The Supreme Court is awesome? I dream of a day when our politicians can speak with such intelligence. Thank god for the Supreme Court even though I do not always agree. They are truly amazing people.

January 22 2011 at 4:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Pat

I will not celebrate until the decision is actually published.

January 22 2011 at 7:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dbunkyj

Corporations are sociopathic entities, they care only about their bottom line. What does society do to sociopaths? You want to argue that corporations are people, they should be arrested or put away. They are created by people and government. They are not natural persons.

January 21 2011 at 7:27 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
wdcriswell

I believe that corporate privacy should be protected from prying lawyers unless they have a civil lawsuit or criminal complaint and then the supoenna must not be a fishing expedition for unrelated information.

January 21 2011 at 6:19 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Larry

Ms Field's closing comments about the Citizen's United case shows her bias. She apparently had no problem with union contributions to political campaigns, or to very wealthy individuals financing groups like MoveOn.org. What's fair for the Left should also be fair for the Right.

January 21 2011 at 5:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Larry

Ms Field's closing comments about the Citizen's United case shows her bias. She apparently had no problem with union contributions to political campaigns, or to very wealthy individuals financing groups like MoveOn.org. What's fair for the Left should also be fair for the Right.

January 21 2011 at 5:05 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
alfredschrader

We had to break-up AT&T in the 1970's They were not very nice back then. I live in a town of Rednecks. Tapping into their phones, networks, mail, whatever could get you instant retirement.

January 21 2011 at 4:36 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
srich34543

What ever happened to Of The People By The People And for the People ???

January 21 2011 at 4:16 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to srich34543's comment
NANA

That was thrown out years ago.

January 23 2011 at 3:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rockywalter2327

It's still there, you just have to be the 'right' people.

January 24 2011 at 9:24 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
wylecote

I would say Roberts and Scalia are most likely right on this issue. But I think that AT&T may have legitimate concerns, but this is not the job of the courts to invent "corporate rights" out of thin air. Corporations are governed by legislation. It is the purview of both the federal's (when interstate commerce is affected) and the individual state's (in all other cases) legislatures to decide what "rights" corporation can have.

One of the things about this case I find obnoxious is that government employs hundreds of lawyers and beauracrats to get the best price, and then after agreeing to a price go back and claim they were "overcharged", or governemnts invest in a stock and when the price goes down it sues for its loses.

January 21 2011 at 3:53 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply