The Supreme Court recently started hearing cases again, after its summer break. Looking at the new cases on its docket, it’s clear that it will continue to address what the Court has staked out as the constitutional rights of corporations, an issue of increased significance since the Citizens United ruling earlier this year. One case in particular stands out. In Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T, the Supreme Court will again consider whether corporations should be granted the same legal status as you or I on certain issues as it decides whether corporations have a right to personal privacy.
Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T began when the FCC started investigating AT&T, the largest U.S. phone company, for overcharging the government during its participation in a program geared to providing services and equipment to schools to increase access to advanced technology. AT&T eventually reached a settlement agreement with the FCC and, although the details of the investigation were not released to the public, AT&T provided various documents to the government during the investigation. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was filed to gain access to the documents, and AT&T filed suit to prevent the release of the information to the public, claiming that it would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” because “corporations, like individuals, face the prospect of public embarrassment, harassment and stigma based on their involvement in such investigations.” A federal court of appeals agreed with AT&T, rejecting the FCC’s argument that “personal” should be interpreted in its ordinary everyday sense to refer to a human being, and instead interpreted “personal” to include corporations for purposes of the term “personal privacy” under the statute.
Isn’t the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act to provide all of us with access to federal government records about important information? To make the government accountable to “we the people”? The law set a strong mandate for the release of information, with only narrow exceptions. AT&T is claiming protection under the exception that’s supposed to be limited to “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Does that sound like it’s supposed to apply to corporations?
Now the Supreme Court will have the final word as to whether corporations have the same privacy rights as individuals -- and whether they can prevent the release of information in the name of their “personal privacy.” A broadly worded ruling in favor of AT&T could undermine our access to key information. Imagine being unable to access the results of government investigations about environmental problems on offshore oil rigs or unethical policies at financial institutions. A decision in favor of AT&T could protect corporate wrongdoing from scrutiny by placing a corporation’s right to privacy above the public’s right to know -- and would see our nation sliding further down the slippery slope toward prioritizing the idea of corporate “rights” over our rights as people.
Due to her prior involvement with the FCC’s legal efforts as Solicitor General, the newly-appointed Justice Kagan has declined to participate in this case. This leaves eight justices poised to make another key ruling on our ability to protect our basic democratic institutions from the sway of profit-minded corporations.
(Photo by JonathanCohen.)