Monday, January 24, 2011

AT&T's novel claim to the Supreme Court of 'corporate personal privacy'

AT&T's novel claim to the Supreme Court of 'corporate personal privacy' -

In a case that could erect new barriers to public access to government information, the Supreme Court this week was asked to hold that corporations have a right to "personal privacy." Fortunately, justices from across the ideological spectrum appeared skeptical that such a counterintuitive concept could be found either in the law or in a dictionary.

AT&T is claiming the "personal privacy" protection in connection with a settlement it reached with the FCC over possible overbilling for work on a communications technology program for schools. A trade association representing some of AT&T's competitors is seeking the information.

Unlike last year's Citizens United ruling, this case doesn't deal with whether corporations have constitutional rights. The issue instead is whether the courts should award corporations an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that Congress didn't see fit to grant them.

Nor should it have: Corporations already receive protection in the form of an exception for trade secrets, and individual employees can invoke the personal privacy exception. That wasn't enough for AT&T, whose lawyer told the court that a ruling for the FCC might lead to the release of embarrassing e-mails disparaging customers or government regulators.

For some purposes, corporations have been considered "persons" under the law. But AT&T's argument that that theory should be extended to grant "personal" privacy rights to companies is unpersuasive. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. offered several examples of situations in which a noun and the adjective based on its root had different meanings. "You have 'craft' and 'crafty,' " he said. "Totally different."

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