Cue the Violins: Inanimate Corporations Have Feelings, Too

On Wednesday, in a case involving the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the nation's corporate giants are asking the Supreme Court to rule that they have a right to "personal privacy" just as people do. If the Corporate Court ignores the ordinary meaning of the term "personal privacy" and grants corporations their wish to have the same rights as people, as in Citizens United, corporations will be able to block the news media and government watchdogs from accessing important government records that corporations would prefer remain hidden.

The case started several years ago, when the FCC investigated alleged overcharges by AT&T. After the investigation, AT&T's competitors filed a FOIA request to get the FCC to release documents on what they had found. The FCC said it would not disclose confidential commercial information about AT&T, pursuant to a specific exemption in the FOIA statute. However, the company argued that certain additional material would cause the company embarrassment and therefore fell into a separate statutory FOIA exemption - Exemption 7(C) - allowing government agencies not to disclose material compiled for law enforcement purposes that would "constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

The FCC ruled that Exemption 7(C) does not cover a corporation's "privacy interest," noting that a corporation's interests are of necessity business interests, not privacy ones.

However, the agency was overruled by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that FOIA's statutory language "unambiguously" indicates that a corporation may have a personal privacy interest within the meaning of this FOIA exemption. The court said that:

  • FOIA defines "person" to include a corporation; and
  • the term "personal" is derived from the word "person" and is simply the adjectival form of the word.

Therefore, the court reasoned, corporations have personal privacy under the FOIA exemption. And because this interpretation was unambiguous, the court said statutory purpose, legislative history, and contrary case law from other circuits were not relevant.

Nevertheless, it did devote a footnote apiece to these three factors and claimed they were not inconsistent with its interpretation. For instance:

Finally, the [DC Circuit Court of Appeals] in Washington Post noted that Exemption 7(C) concerns only "intimate" details, including "marital status, legitimacy of children, identity of fathers of children, medical condition, welfare payments, alcoholic consumption, family fights, and reputation." But a corporation, too, has a strong interest in protecting its reputation.

Cue the violins: Inanimate corporations have feelings, too.

Numerous corporate interests, including the Chamber of Commerce, have filed amicus briefs in support of AT&T, arguing that inanimate corporations have "personal privacy."

If the Roberts Court - with Justice Kagan recused - rules in favor of AT&T, it will significantly weaken the ability of news organizations and government watchdogs to examine government records containing vital information about corporate behavior affecting public health and safety – records that would otherwise remain hidden from the American people. In addition, the Court may seize the opportunity to lay the legal groundwork for treating inanimate corporations like people in other respects.

At least before Pinocchio became human, he had to prove himself truthful and unselfish. Here, in contrast, we have profit-seeking entities asking for humanity so they can hide their embarrassing conduct.

PFAW