(CN) - Corporations cannot use privacy interests to block the government from disclosing information about them, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. AT&T had argued that it had personal privacy rights as a private corporate citizen and should be able to block unflattering documents from coming to light when requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
In rejecting that view, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned a September 2009 decision from the 3rd Circuit and instructed the parties and lower courts in the proper grammatical understanding of "personal.'"
Noting that Congress defined "person" under the Administrative Procedure Act to include individuals as well as corporations, AT&T had argued in its brief that "Congress necessarily defined the adjective form of that noun -'personal'-also to include corporations." (Emphasis added by the court.)
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that he and his colleagues did not agree, and he quoted from Webster's to bolster that finding.
"Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always," Roberts wrote. "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;' 'corny' can mean 'using familiar and stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,' which has little to do with 'corn' ('the seeds of any of the cereal grasses used for food'); and while 'crank' is 'a part of an axis bent at right angles,' 'cranky' can mean 'given to fretful fussiness.'"
Contrary to the company's view, the court sided with the Federal Communications Administration that a noun and its adjective form do not necessarily have parallel meanings. In the case of "personal," the FCC argued that the word developed along its own etymological path.
"'Personal' ordinarily refers to individuals," Roberts wrote. "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."
More often than not, "personal" is used as an antonym for all things business-related, according to the ruling. "We speak of personal expenses and business expenses, personal life and work life, personal opinion and a company's view," Roberts wrote.
The justices added that AT&T failed to identify context that would justify its "watered-down version of the 'grammatical imperative' argument."
"When it comes to the word 'personal,' there is little support for the notion that it denotes corporations, even in the legal context," Roberts wrote.
In conjunction with the noun "privacy," AT&T also fails to prove its definition of "personal," according to the ruling.
"But two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation," Roberts wrote. "We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold. A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky, and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed. 'Personal' in the phrase 'personal privacy' conveys more than just 'of a person.' It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns - not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T."
In fact, there are several treatises printed in the mid-to-late-20th century - the time Congress drafted the "personal privacy" exemption to the Freedom of Information Act - that explicitly remove the possibility that corporations are entitled to enjoy the right of personal privacy. Furthermore, another provision of the statute covers exemptions for a corporation's commercial and financial information.
Disclosure of the materials in question has been stayed pending appeal. The documents stem from AT&T's participation in an FCC program called E-Rate.
Under the program, AT&T provided telecommunications equipment and services to schools, and then billed the government for its costs. In August 2004, it voluntarily reported to the FCC that it might have overcharged for work done for a Connecticut school district.
The FCC's enforcement bureau investigated the matter, and a trade association representing some of AT&T's competitors, CompTel, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the investigation report the following year. The enforcement bureau had said certain exemptions applied, covering the company's trade secrets and individuals identified in the investigation, but it declined to extend personal privacy rights to the corporation itself. About a year after the 3rd Circuit overturned that ruling, the Supreme Court said it would step in.