The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption barring the release of law enforcement records whose release “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” is inapplicable to documents provided to a federal agency by a corporation.FCC v. AT&T, Inc., No. 09-1279 (U.S., decided March 1, 2011). Expressing the wish that “AT&T will not take it personally,” Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the 8-0 court, rejected its argument that “personal privacy” under FOIA reaches corporations because the statute defines “person” to include a corporation.

The case involved an investigation launched after AT&T voluntarily provided certain information to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) arising from the company’s participation in a program to enhance schools and libraries’ access to advanced telecommunications and information services. AT&T apparently reported that it might have overcharged the government for its program services. While the FCC and AT&T resolved the matter through a consent decree, a trade association representing the company’s competitors made a FOIA request for all pleadings and correspondence in the agency’s files relating to the investigation.

The agency withheld some of the requested documents as “trade secrets and commercial or financial information,” and it determined that other information would be withheld under FOIA exemption 7(C), the “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” exemption, because it involved information about individuals. The exemption was not applied to the corporation itself, so AT&T sought review in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined that exemption 7(C) extended to corporations. The U.S. Supreme Court explored dictionary definitions and common usage to reverse the circuit court, finding that a corporation does not have “personal privacy” interests. The Court does not mention in the opinion that it extended First Amendment protections to corporations during its last term.