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.