Supreme Court Will Decide Whether Corporations Have Right to Privacy

If corporations are defined as people, do they have all the rights of individuals? After the Supreme Court defended the "personhood" of corporations -- and their accompanying First Amendment rights -- in this year's Citizens United case, critics of the decision asked this question. Will corporations be able to vote, they wondered? Will they have an individual's right to privacy?

The Court will weigh in on this last question, at least, on this year's docket. The justices have decided to review FCC v. AT&T, which concerns certain documents that AT&T handed over to the federal government during a 2004 billing probe. A trade association representing some of AT&T's competitors used the Freedom of Information Act to request access to these documents, which AT&T claimed would violate its privacy.

Philadelphia's Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of AT&T, finding that the Freedom of Information Act's "personal privacy" exemption applies to corporations--suggesting, as the Supreme Court did in Citizens United, that corporations share many of the same rights as individuals.   

Adam Liptak of The New York Times highlights Judge Michael A. Chagares' assertion that "'corporations, like human beings, face public embarrassment, harassment and stigma' because of their involvement in law enforcement investigations."

While this case is not a carbon copy of Citizens United and justices are not guaranteed to vote similarly, the Citizens breakdown may serve as a helpful barometer of where votes may fall on FCC. After all, both cases have at their core the issue of corporate "personhood" and the rights that accompany it. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for Citizens, justifying corporations' political spending by citing their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Other yay votes included Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas. Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Breyer dissented.

Justice Kagan has since replaced Stevens, but she has recused herself from this case, as she has from many on the Court's upcoming docket, because she played a role in it while solicitor general. If the justices were to reprise their positions on corporate personhood from the Citizens decision, they would easily affirm AT&T's right to privacy. But again, this case is different from last year's and concerns a different set of laws, focusing on the Freedom of Information Act rather than campaign finance rules.

Regardless, it will be a juicy and likely politically charged decision.

Presented by

Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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