Supreme Court Gives AT&T a Grammar Lesson, Ruling Against Corporate Personhood

by Matthew L. Schafer

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court gave AT&T a grammar lesson, ruling against the telecommunications giant in a unanimous decision regarding “corporate personhood.”  Corporate personhood, which AT&T tried to use to evade disclosure rules, is a legal fiction which defines corporations as “persons” having certain rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that AT&T could not envoke a "personal privacy" exemption to prevent disclosure of sensitive information.

“We reject the argument that because ‘person’ is defined for purposes of [the Freedom of Information Act] to include a corporation, the phrase ‘personal privacy’ …reaches corporations as well,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the Court.  “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.”

The case, Federal Communications Communication v. AT&T, stems from AT&T’s overcharging the government upwards of $500,000 in 2004.  At the time, AT&T, which was providing the government services for the FCC’s Education Rate program, told the government that it believed that it had, in fact, over charged the FCC.

As such, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau opened an investigation regarding the overcharges, collecting e-mails, invoices, and other internal documents from the company.  Following the investigation, CompTel, a trade association made up of AT&T’s competitors, filed a FOIA request to acquire many of the AT&T internal documents.

AT&T argued that the government was not required to release the documents under certain FOIA exemptions, including trade secrets and a “personal privacy” exemption.  The “personal privacy” exemption has, in the past, prevented invasions of privacy into individuals’ personal lives.

In an effort to prevent the release of the information, AT&T argued that its “personal privacy” as a corporate person would be violated.  It argued, that because corporations are often seen as persons, they must also have “personal privacy” as a “basic principle of grammar and usage.”  The Court disagreed.

“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,” the Chief Justice wrote in the opinion.

The Court’s opinion read like a grammar lesson from an English teacher, as the Chief Justice repeatedly asserted that the fact that “person” and “personal” have the same root does not necessarily mean that the words mean the same thing.

“Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always.  Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own,” the Court stated.  “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.’”

The Court also ruled that AT&T could not prevent disclosure by arguing that it had “personal privacy,” because “personal” is also a term often used to indicate the opposite of business.  The court stated that we often talk about “personal expenses and business expenses, personal life and work life.”

If the court would have decided in favor of AT&T, the decision would have had far reaching effects regarding FOIA–a major foundation of governmental transparency.  Indeed, the potential disclosure of thousands of documents may have been prevented, if a corporation could have argued that such disclosure would violate its “personal privacy.”

“This is a huge win for advocates of government transparency, and we are so pleased that the Court unanimously and categorically rejected AT&T’s claim that corporations are entitled to the same privacy rights as individuals under FOIA,” representatives from Free Press, a public interest group, said.



About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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