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Federal Freedom of Information Act Doesn’t Apply to Corporations

FCC v. AT&T, USSC No. 09-1279, 3/1/11

The “personal privacy” exemption in the federal Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to corporations, though they are considered “persons” under the Act.

… 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,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 527 (2002); “corny” can mean “using familiar and stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,” id., at 509, which has little to do with “corn,” id., at 507 (“the seeds of any of the cereal grasses used for food”); and while “crank” is “a part of an axis bent at right angles,” “cranky” can mean “given to fretful fussiness,” id., at 530.

“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.” Johnson v. United States, 559 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 4). “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.

No direct applicability to our Open Records analog, §§ 19.31-37. Still, the principles recited in the opinion -a meaning is informed by context, the terms surrounding the language at issue, secondary sources such as treatises, statutory history – will be instantly recognizable as parts of the Wisconsin construction toolbox. But even if they seem a bit too familiar, and thus not meriting attention, the opinion is simply a great read, not least for its conclusion:

We reject the argument that because “person” is defined for purposes of FOIA to include a corporation, the phrase “personal privacy” in Exemption 7(C) reaches corporations as well. 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. We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.

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