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Nothing Personal, But There Is No Right to “Personal Privacy” for Corporations in FCC v. AT&T

“We trust that AT&T won’t take it too personally,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) regarding the outcome of a case concerning corporate privacy rights.

Flowing from a spate of privacy cases at SCOTUS (most notably, Snyder v. Phelps covered by fellow Contributing Editor, Alysia Lau here and our Amici Curiae here and NASA v. Nelson that I covered here and here) as well as contributing to a general trend of ruling for “no constitutional right to privacy,” FCC v. AT&T Inc. (2011) No. 90-1279, 582 F. 3d 490 decided on March 1, 2011 continued a line of rulings that corporations as separate legal persons are not entitled to the personal right to privacy.

The telecommunications company, AT&T, was under investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This independent agency of the U.S government had, in the words of the Third Circuit decision (pdf link) “ordered the production of invoices, internal emails and billing information, responses to interrogatories, names of employees involved in alleged overbilling, and AT&T’s assessment of the extent to which its employees’ actions violated its internal code of conduct.”

SCOTUS held that corporations do not have a right of personal privacy for purposes of Exemption 7(C) of the Freedom of Information Act that requires corporations to disclose law enforcement records to a federal agency unless disclosure “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

AT&T’s argument against disclosing its “embarrassing” record of overcharging the U.S government for its E-Rate services was that these records fell under the exemption mentioned above due to the corporation’s alleged right to personal privacy for its internal information.

A Lesson in Using the Dictionary

In a unanimous 8-0 decision, Roberts wrote what has been identified by the media as a “teacher-like” “grammar lesson” in corporate privacy rights:

Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always. 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” (“the seeds of any of the cereal grasses used for food”); and while “crank” is “a part of anaxis bent at right angles,” “cranky” can mean “given to fretful fussiness…

All of this to explain that:

“Person” is a defined term in the statute; “personal” is not. When a statute does not define a term, we typically “give the phrase its ordinary meaning”…“Personal” ordinarily refers to individuals. We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence, or personal tragedy as referring to corporations or other artificial entities. This is not to say that corporations do not have correspondence, influence, or tragedies of their own, only that we do not use the word “personal” to describe them.

The decision turned on a strict interpretation of the language of the statute and utilized several dictionary definitions to show that “ordinary usage of a noun and its adjective form may have different meanings as disparate as any two unrelated words.” SCOTUS ruled on this reasoning that artificial entities are not “personal” despite being separate legal “persons” and are therefore not subject to the statutory exemption for the disclosure of “personal” information.

Bring-On the Adjective-laden Legal Reasoning

I often enjoy reading decisions by SCOTUS and rarely hesitate to applaud colourful commentary and generous use of non-legalese descriptions and catchy phrases to lay down the law (particularly by Justice Scalia) — a method rarely used by Canadian Supreme Court justices, except Justice Binnie’s clever dissent in R. v. Sinclair.

This U.S. judgement is certainly one of these brisk, informative reads as it decided the case in 15-pages, a rather dry subject matter of corporate “personhood” by making it more approachably human (excuse the pun). Why else did the judge choose to compare a random choice of words such as “corn” vs. “corny,” “crab” vs. “crabbed,” and “crank” vs. “cranky” in a case about corporate personality, except for reasons of style and plain language emphasis that spells it out for the layperson without cloaking the answer in convoluted legalese. (This style is particularly intriguing for someone like myself with an interest in journalism, as it provides my legal coverage with plenty of quotable material). The bottom-line message in this case is clear: “personal privacy” is not a statutory right, not for corporations, but for living, breathing human beings.

[filed: FCC v. AT&T (2011) NASA v. Nelson (2010) NASA v. Nelson (2011) Privacy Snyder v. Phelps (2011) U.S. Supreme Court]

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