It’s not often these days when you can’t get even one of the conservative Justices on the Supreme Court to ignore precedent, twist the facts, ignore logic, or do whatever else it takes to help Big Business consolidate the already substantial power it exercises over ordinary Americans. Today is such a day.
In FCC v. AT&T, the giant telecom corporation, backed by supportive amicus briefs from numerous corporate interests, argued that inanimate corporations have "personal privacy" for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Several years ago, the FCC investigated alleged overcharges by AT&T. After the investigation, AT&T’s competitors filed a FOIA request to get the FCC to release documents on what they had found. The FCC said it would not disclose confidential commercial information about AT&T, pursuant to a specific exemption in the FOIA statute. However, the company argued that certain additional material would cause the company embarrassment and therefore fell into a separate statutory FOIA exemption allowing government agencies not to disclose material compiled for law enforcement purposes that would "constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled for AT&T, holding that FOIA’s statutory language "unambiguously" indicates that a corporation may have a personal privacy interest within the meaning of this FOIA exemption. The court said that: (1) FOIA defines "person" to include a corporation; and (2) the term "personal" is derived from the word "person" and is simply the adjectival form of the word.
Aside from leading to a bizarre definition of "personal," Big Business’s idea of corporate personhood would significantly weaken the ability of news organizations and government watchdogs to examine government records containing vital information about corporate behavior affecting public health and safety – records that would otherwise remain hidden from the American people.
Fortunately, this assertion of corporate personhood was too much even for the Corporate Court that gave us Citizens United. A unanimous Court noted that in common conversation, the term "personal" is often used as the opposite of "business-related." Moreover, a simple look at a dictionary suggests that the word "personal" does not relate to artificial entities like corporations.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce submitted an amicus brief in support of AT&T. Its extremism has reached the point that not even one Justice on the Supreme Court was willing to accept its view. Keep that in mind the next time the Chamber purports to represent mainstream values as it seeks to weaken Americans’ efforts to impose reasonable regulations on businesses and hold them accountable when they do wrong.