On March 1, 2011, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T Inc., finding that corporations are not entitled to “personal privacy” and therefore may not invoke Exemption 7(C) of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). AT&T sought to employ this exemption, which prevents the disclosure of law enforcement records that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” to prohibit the Federal Communications Commission (the “FCC”) from turning over documents in response to a trade association’s FOIA request. Applicable federal law defines “person” to include “an individual, partnership, corporation, association, or public or private organization other than an agency;” AT&T contended that the adjective “personal” is a derivative of the noun “person,” giving it “personal privacy” rights as a “private corporate citizen.”
The Court disagreed and reversed a Third Circuit decision that extended “personal privacy” rights to corporations. Because “personal privacy” is not expressly defined under FOIA, the Court gave the phrase its ordinary meaning and found that the rights and benefits enjoyed by “persons” are not necessarily “personal” in nature. The Court’s 12-page decision parsed syntax, stressed statutory construction and reasoned that although “‘person,’ in a legal setting, often refers to artificial entities . . . [w]hen it comes to the word ‘personal,’ there is little support for the notion that it denotes corporations, even in the legal context.” Furthermore, the Court stated that adjectives do not always “reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns,” drawing on the distinct meanings between pairs such as “crank” and “cranky.” The Court supported its conclusion by contrasting two exemptions, one that protected corporate interests and another related only to individuals, existing under FOIA when Congress drafted Exemption 7(C). According to the Court, Exemption 7(C)’s language followed the latter.
Justice Kagan recused herself because of her previous involvement with the case as Solicitor General.