U.S. Top Court Denies AT&T Use of Personal Exemption

1 March 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 March 1that corporations do not have a right of personal privacy under freedom of information laws.

“We trust that AT&T will not take it personally,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote at the conclusion of his opinion for the court.

AT&T sought to use the “personal privacy” exemption to prevent disclosure of information gathered in an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission.

AT&T had argued that the Administrative Procedure Act defines the noun “person” to include corporations, and therefore the adjective “personal” should also include corporations. Roberts disagreed.

“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.’ … And while ‘crank’ is ‘a part of anaxis bent at right angles,’ ‘cranky’ can mean ‘given to fretful fussiness.’ ”

Because “personal” is not defined in the statute, Roberts wrote, it must be given its ordinary meaning. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision.

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