Should Corporations Have the Same Privacy Rights as People?

The Supreme Court will be the judge of that...

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The Supreme Court is taking up a case concerning whether corporations have the same privacy rights as people. The high court will review a federal court ruling that said a company can block the release of government documents that violate its privacy rights. The specific case involved the Federal Communications Commission publishing documents related to its investigation of AT&T's billing practices. The documents were requested by AT&T's competitors via a Freedom of Information Act request. AT&T claimed a personal privacy exception under the language of the Freedom of Information Act and won. Now the FCC is appealing the ruling, arguing that only actual people may claim such an exception.

  • Here's How This Got to the Supreme Court, explains Kashmir Hill at Forbes: "The FCC decided that AT&T as a corporation wasn't entitled to FOIA's 'personal privacy' exemption. When AT&T appealed the FCC decision, a federal court decided the personal privacy exemption does apply to corporations. Now it's been kicked up to the Supreme Court." In the federal court decision, Judge Michael Chagares, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, said "Corporations, like human beings, face public embarrassment, harassment and stigma" when they get involved with investigations by authorities.

  • Activists Say Corporations Have Enough Privileges as It Is, writes Daniel Fisher at Forbes:

Just as Citizens United drew strong protest from good-government types who argued that corporations don't deserve the same rights as breathing humans, AT&T is opposed by Public Citizen, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and others. They say the exemption for privacy was never intended to protect corporations, which have protection against disclosure of trade secrets and other information under a separate section. Citing testimony of former Sen. Phillip Hart -- not the other Sen. Hart, who was the victim of disclosures about his private life -- when amendments to the bill were debated, Public Citizen says Congress wanted to make sure exemption wasn't twisted to include "meat inspection reports, civil rights compliance information," and the like.

  • What's At Stake? "Unless the Supreme Court overturns the ruling, government records could be withheld about coal mine safety violations, offshore oil rig problems, dirty conditions at a food manufacturing plant and questionable investment bank financial dealings," argue the public interest groups backing the FCC's appeal.
  • This May Play Out Like Citizens United, writes Nicole Allan at The Atlantic: "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."
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