Supreme Court To Decide Whether Corporations Have Privacy Rights

Supreme Court To Decide Whether Corporations, Like Individuals, Have Privacy Rights

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case early next year that will impact whether corporations are able to prevent the government from publicly releasing documents that could expose their corporate misconduct.

At the heart of the matter is whether or not a personal privacy exemption contained in a freedom of information law extends the same rights to corporations as it does to people.

Unless the Supreme Court reverses a Third Circuit ruling, "records about safety violations at a coal mine, environmental problems at an offshore oil rig and financial shenanigans at an investment bank" could be kept secret under a provision of the Freedom of Information Act, six public interest groups told the high court in an Amicus brief.

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider whether records AT&T Inc. turned over to the U.S. government as part of a 2004 billing probe should be disclosed to its competitors.

In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that AT&T should not be entitled to the disclosure law's "personal privacy" exemption. But a Third Circuit court reversed the FCC's ruling in 2008. In interpreting the phrase "personal privacy," the Philadelphia-based court included corporations in the law's definition of a "person." Corporations, the court held, should enjoy the same right as individuals to challenge the release of documents submitted to the government because such a release infringes on their right to personal privacy.

The Supreme Court will argue the appeal early next year at the request of President Obama who has maintained that the freedom of information law's personal privacy protections should apply only to individuals, and not to corporations.

But AT&T has urged the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal, Bloomberg notes. The telecommunications giant told the courts, "Corporations, like individuals, face the prospect of public embarrassment, harassment and stigma based on their involvement in such investigations," referring to the FCC's 2004 billing probe.

In its Citizen United opinion last year, the Supreme Court struck down campaign-finance limits, which essentially granted American corporations First Amendment free-speech rights. As the Wall Street Journal points out, should the Supreme Court decide in favor of AT&T, it would be "another step toward imbuing corporations with all the rights guaranteed U.S. citizens."

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