Every once in a while humor pops up in weird places. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision today on FCC v. AT&T, declaring that AT&T could not withhold information on the grounds that AT&T is a “corporate person” (thank you 14th amendment) and that the withheld information was “personal”. SCOTUS did not agree. At all.
In 2004 AT&T was found to have been overcharging the federal government for the E-Rate program that was meant to bring technology into classrooms. The FCC launched an investigation. The matter was resolved and a $500,000 settlement reached, but then CompTel, a trade association made up of AT&T competitors, filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to look at all the investigation files.
But AT&T felt, passionately, that turning over these materials would violate the corporation’s “personal privacy.” One of the exemptions to FOIA—exemption 7(C)—provides that records may be withheld if their release would represent an unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy.” But since this exemption has only ever been invoked to protect human privacy rights, never corporate ones, AT&T had to persuade the courts to extend the right to “personal privacy” to corporations as well as people. Hence FCC v. AT&T ending up before SCOTUS.
During the oral argument, the chief justice spent the better part of the hour poking fun at AT&T’s claim that the adjective personal means the same thing as the noun person, such that the statute’s treatment of corporations as “persons” means that corporations are also somehow capable of getting “personal.” As he explained at argument, that claim makes no sense. “I tried to sit down and come up with other examples where the adjective was very different from the root noun,” he observed at the time. “It turns out it is not hard at all. You have craft and crafty. Totally different. Crafty doesn’t have much to do with craft. Squirrel, squirrely. Right? I mean, pastor—you have a pastor and pastoral. Same root, totally different.”
The unanimous opinion issued by the court continued in the same vein, referring to citations in Webster’s that “[t]he 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,’ ” and goes on to observe that “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’).”
The opinion ends with
“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.”