Corporations: Persons Without Personal Privacy Rights

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on March 03, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last year, commentators blasted the Supreme Court for its decision in Citizens United, in which corporations were deemed persons for the purpose of the First Amendment. The main concern was that corporate personhood would spread, leading to overly empowered corporations. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that sheds a bit more light on the concept of corporate personhood, and it may not be as dire as originally predicted.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal government agencies to release information to citizens when they file a FOIA request. Available information generally includes policies, interpretations of law, and anything else that demonstrates how an agency operates. There are, however, a few FOIA exemptions, one of which is at the center of this case.

AT&T and the FCC got tangled up in the courts when AT&T's competitors filed a FOIA request asking for documents the agency had collected when it investigated the conglomerate for overcharging customers. AT&T objected on the grounds that releasing the information would violate its right to personal privacy.

Amongst several FOIA exemptions is one that prohibits the release of all records that "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Because the statute does not define "personal," the Court had to look to the plain meaning of the word. AT&T argued that legally, "person" includes corporations, and since the word "personal" is an extension of "person," it too, should cover corporations.

The Court didn't buy that argument. Both at oral argument and in the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts pointed to the absurdity of the argument. Stating that adjectives don't always "reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns," he listed a variety of examples: "corny" has nothing to do with "corn"; "crank" is unrelated to "cranky"; and "squirrel" is irrelevant to "squirrelly." Expanding on these comparisons, the Court noted that, while the word "person" does legally refer to corporations, the word "personal" typically refers to individuals.

Though the Court decided not to extend personal privacy rights to corporations, it's important to keep in mind the narrow scope of this ruling. This case dealt solely with FOIA and statutory interpretation, whereas Citizens United dealt with the First Amendment. Corporate personhood could still be applied to the rest of the Constitution.

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