The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on March 1 that corporations do not have the same personal privacy rights as human beings. In Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T, the telecommunications company unsuccessfully asked the high court to exempt from public release certain potentially embarassing e-mails and documents the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) had obtained during a 2004 investigation into AT&T’s self-reported overcharges.

Writing for a unanimous Court (Justice Kagan not participating), Chief Justice Roberts rejected AT&T’s contention that the FCC should withhold production of the e-mails and documents sought as part of a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request by some of AT&T’s competitors. AT&T had contended the Court should apply an exemption to FOIA for records that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

What Happened

In August 2004, AT&T voluntarily reported to the FCC that it might have overcharged the federal government for its services. The FCC and AT&T resolved the matter in December 2004 through a consent decree in which AT&T – without conceding liability – agreed to pay the government $500,000 and institute a plan of billing compliance.

In 2005, CompTel, a trade association of some of AT&T’s competitors, submitted a FOIA request seeking “‘[a]ll pleadings and correspondence’” in the FCC investigation file. AT&T opposed the request, and the FCC withheld some sensitive AT&T business data (such as cost, pricing, and billing-related information) under a FOIA exemption for “trade secrets and commercial or financial information.” 5 U. S. C. §552(b)(4). The FCC also withheld other, non-trade-secret information, such as embarrassing emails and internal memoranda, under another FOIA exemption for “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes” that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” §552(b)(7)(C) (emphasis added).

The case made its way to the Third Circuit federal appeals court, which said that corporations under investigation, “like human beings, face public embarrassment, harassment and stigma.” It found AT&T had a “personal privacy” interest and affirmed the FCC’s withholding of the “personal” documents at issue. The Supreme Court reversed this decision.

The Court based its opinion on the context and common meaning of the English language. “Responding to a request for information, an individual might say, ‘that’s personal,’” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “A company spokeswoman, when asked for information about the company, would not,” he observed. “In fact, we often use the word ‘personal’ to mean precisely the opposite of business-related: We speak of personal expenses and business expenses, personal life and work life, personal opinion and a company’s view.” He concluded, with an ironic flourish, “[w]e trust that AT&T will not take [the Court’s opinion] personally.”

What it Means

Even though federal law generally recognizes corporations as “persons,” a corporation does not possess all of the rights accorded to individual people. This concept is not new. It is well-established, for example, that a corporation cannot claim protection under the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination, while its individual employees can. Should the perceived expansion of corporate “personhood” come up before the Roberts Court anytime soon, the business sector will portray FCC v. AT&T as a limited ruling, tied to the narrow interpretation of the unique term “personal privacy.” The press will likely argue that the case supports a denial of any future expansion of corporate rights.