Corporations do not have a right to "personal privacy," the Supreme Court ruled unanimously, at least when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act and the release of documents held by the government.
Last year's ruling giving companies a free-speech right to spend money on campaign ads prompted liberal critics to say the court's conservatives were biased in favor of corporate rights.
While not alluding to the criticism, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. took a scalpel to a corporate-rights claim from AT&T Inc. that its "personal privacy" deserves to be protected. The ordinary meaning of "personal" does not refer to an impersonal company, he said.
"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," he wrote. "In fact, we often use the word 'personal' to mean precisely the opposite of business-related: We speak of personal expenses and business expenses, personal life and work life, personal opinion and a company's view."
The decision means the Federal Communications Commission may release documents that were compiled during an investigation in 2004 over whether AT&T had overcharged schools and libraries for use of the Internet. The company paid a $500,000 settlement.
When some of its competitors sought release of the documents through the Freedom of Information Act, AT&T objected. It cited an exception in the law that shields law enforcement records which might result in an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
AT&T won a ruling based on that provision from the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Its judges noted one part of the law defines "person" to include not just an individual but also a "partnership, association or corporation."
Then U.S. Solicitor Gen. Elena Kagan appealed the issue to the Supreme Court. She said the Freedom of Information Act had never been interpreted to protect the "personal privacy" of companies.
All the justices agreed in FCC v. AT&T, with the exception of Kagan, who did not participate. "We trust that AT&T will not take it personally," Roberts said in a parting comment.