Supreme Court Says AT&T Has No Right To 'Personal Privacy'

from the don't-take-it-personally dept

Last year, we wrote about an important case in which AT&T bizarrely claimed that it had personal privacy rights over information the FCC collected in an investigation concerning AT&T overbilling the government. An organization had made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on the info, but AT&T protested that, as a corporation, it had a personal right to privacy. As we noted, that seemed like a pretty ridiculous claim, but the appeals court accepted it. We were therefore happy to see the Supreme Court pick up the case last fall, and now it has unanimously ruled against AT&T (8 – 0, with Kagan not taking part, since she filed the original brief for the federal government in support of the FCC). Considering the complaints some have made about the Supreme Court taking the idea of “corporate personhood” too far, I think plenty of people (who don’t work for AT&T) will agree that this ruling makes plenty of sense. A corporation has a right to keep certain information secret and confidential, but the idea it has a “right to privacy” makes no sense.

The actual ruling (embedded below) is quite interesting in noting, while corporations may be “persons,” that does not automatically afford them “personal” rights.

Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always. Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own. The noun “crab” refers variously to a crustacean and a type of apple, while the related adjective “crabbed” can refer to handwriting that is “difficult to read,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 527 (2002); “corny” can mean “using familiar and stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,” id., at 509, which has little to do with “corn,” id., at 507 (“the seeds of any of the cereal grasses used for food”); and while “crank” is “a part of anaxis bent at right angles,” “cranky” can mean “given to fretful fussiness,” id., at 530.

Even in cases such as these there may well be a link between the noun and the adjective. “Cranky” describes a person with a “wayward” or “capricious” temper, see 3 Oxford English Dictionary 1117 (2d ed. 1989) (OED), which might bear some relation to the distorted or crooked angular shape from which a “crank” takes its name. That is not the point. What is significant is that, in ordinary usage, a noun and its adjective form may have meanings as disparate as any two unrelated words. The FCC’s argument that “personal” does not, in fact, derive from the English word “person,” but instead developed along its own etymological path, Reply Brief for Petitioners 6, simply highlights the shortcomings of AT&T’s proposed rule.

“Person” is a defined term in the statute; “personal” is not. When a statute does not define a term, we typically “give the phrase its ordinary meaning.” Johnson v. United States, 559 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 4). “Personal” ordinarily refers to individuals. We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence, or personal tragedy as referring to corporations or other artificial entities. This is not to say that corporations do not have correspondence, influence, or tragedies of their own, only that we do not use the word “personal” to describe them.

Certainly, if the chief executive officer of a corporation approached the chief financial officer and said, “I have something personal to tell you,” we would not assume the CEO was about to discuss company business. Responding to a request for information, an individual might say, “that’s personal.” A company spokesman, when asked for information about the company, would not. 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.

Justice Roberts, who wrote the decision, then goes on to pick apart each argument made by AT&T as to why it should be allowed “personal” privacy, leading to the rather obvious punchline that you have to think the Justices had in mind to use from the very beginning:

We reject the argument that because “person” is defined for purposes of FOIA to include a corporation, the phrase”personal privacy” in Exemption 7(C) reaches corporations as well. The protection in FOIA against disclosure of law enforcement information on the ground that it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy does not extend to corporations. We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.

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Companies: at&t, fcc

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Comments on “Supreme Court Says AT&T Has No Right To 'Personal Privacy'”

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Chris Rhodes (profile) says:

Re: OK, so...

They didn’t base their Citizen’s United decision on corporations being “persons”. They based their decision on the fact that the government was shutting down political speech from a group of persons merely because they had pooled their money and incorporated.

Big difference, and both decisions were correct.

Joe Publius says:

Re: Re: OK, so...

Big difference, and both decisions were correct.

Good point, and it makes me wonder if that leaves a legal opening to allow disclosure of a corporation’s political contributions. Just because they are allowed as a collective to engage in political speech, doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to keep it a secret. I for one would like to know just how ‘bought’ my congressmen are.

Then again, such a bill would have to get passed first, and IIRC it hasn’t yet.

mojo says:

As much as I like this ruling, from where I’m sitting the Supremes are being dangerously inconsistent.

Can you blame AT&T for thinking it has “personal privacy” rights after the court rules a company could be considered an individual and contribute to political campaigns?

So help me out here, in what situations can a company claim “personal rights” and in which ones can they not?

Did the court issue a handy checklist?

Of course not. I REALLY think they screwed up in that campaign finance ruling. Not only because saying a company can act like a person is silly, but why on EARTH would they want to help create a world where corporations can now easily and flagrantly buy politicians?

Chris Rhodes (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Again, I feel the need to clarify because so many people have the wrong impression of Citizen’s United: The Supreme Court did not say that corporations can donate as much as they want to political campaigns; they still cant.

The court only said that the government can’t stop people from publishing actual speech on political issues just because they are grouped as a corporation.

It was tremendous blow for free speech, and doesn’t deserve to be vilified as it has been in the press.

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Maybe I'm being picky

All very laudable, and I’ll admit I dind’t bother to read the full ruling so maybe that is different, but the bits quoted seem to effectively rely on the dictionary definition and common usage of the word “personal” to refute the claims. Is a specific use of language a good way to right laws (which seems to be effectively what’s being done here this being the first test of this area)? Wouldn’t a careful consideration of, well logic and/or societical “good” for example, be a better gauge for how much privacy a corporation should have “personal” or otherwise?

CourtJester says:

Jerry Seinfeld for supreme court justice

What the hell was all that “corny” and “cranky” stuff in the ruling? It’s irrelevant to the question of whether ATT should have personal privacy. Your personal rights dont flow from your “adjective”. They flow from your personhood. And if corporations are legally “persons”, we would expect them to have rights. Should corporations be subject to cruel and unusual punishment? Should government be allowed to establish religion with respect to a corporation? The ruling plays word games and avoids the important question of how personal protections should apply to corporations.

Joe Publius says:

Re: Jerry Seinfeld for supreme court justice

I can understand how that looks like a bit of semantic legerdemain, but the court is making a point about how words mean things.

Just because “person”, and “personal” have many of the same letters in them doesn’t mean that they are the same thing in a legal, business, or even social context.

We can understand that as a business arrangement a corportation is treated like an individual in some important ways. At the same time, we can still understand that a corporation is not actually an individual, but a collective. This means that a line has to be drawn at a point where the corporation tries to claim its individual protections in contexts where it shouldn’t apply, like information about that corporation gathered by the government in relation to an investigation.

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Re: Re: Jerry Seinfeld for supreme court justice

We can understand that as a business arrangement a corportation is treated like an individual in some important ways. At the same time, we can still understand that a corporation is not actually an individual, but a collective.

Then wouldn’t a judgement that said something like:
Don’t be so damn stupid. As a corporation you’re not a person and while the law may afford you certain specific rights as if you were a person it still doesn’t make you a person and never will and this isn’t one of those rights so stop trying it on.”
… have been a tad more accurate? 🙂

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