I do not normally think of the Supreme Court of the United States as my go-to source for snarky humor regarding the Freedom of Information Act and the telephone company.
I should rethink that.
Long-time readers of this blog (all two of you) will know that I have made extensive use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in researching my book on the history of phone phreaking. As such, I have become a reluctant inductee into the arcane world of FOIA, with its jargon and abbreviations and legal concepts and whatnot.
One of these bits of arcana is something called "FOIA exemption b(7)(c)." (Doesn't that sound like something out of the movie Brazil?) B(7)(c) says that the government cannot reveal under FOIA records compiled for law enforcement purposes that "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." That's generally a good thing: it provides people a bit of privacy if they're being investigated, by, say, the FBI, or the DEA, or some other Federal three-letter agency. It means, for example, that I can't get your FBI files without your permission.
Enter the phone company. In 2004 AT&T was being investigated by the Federal Communications Commission for overcharging the Government. AT&T and the FCC patched things up and AT&T agreed to pay a fee (let's not call it a fine) of $500,000. Then a trade association representing some of AT&T's competitors came along and filed a FOIA request for records related to this matter. AT&T opposed the release of records under FOIA, claiming that corporations are persons under the law, and as such, had personal privacy rights under b(7)(c). So, AT&T claimed, the FCC could not legally release information about its investigation.
The FCC said "pfffft."
AT&T appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. And won. The appeals court said that, legally, "person" includes corporations and that since "personal" derives from "person," corporations must have personal privacy rights as well.
Enter the Supreme Court: The FCC appealed the Third Circuit's decision. Yesterday, they won: the Supreme Court ruled that, in fact, personal privacy does not extend to corporations. Justice Roberts, writing for the Court in an 8-0 decision (Justice Kagan recused herself), parsed the language:
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,”; and while “crank” is “a part of an axis bent at right angles,” “cranky” can mean “given to fretful fussiness."
So, "personal" does not necessarily mean "having to do with a person," and thus, corporations do not have personal privacy rights.
But that's not the snark. No, the snark comes from the last line of Justice Robert's closing paragraph:
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.