Does AT&T have a right to “personal privacy?” The huge telecommunications company made that claim as it resisted the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) attempt to release some AT&T documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
FOIA is frequently used by reporters, consumer activists, special interest groups and individuals who are seeking access to documents being held by the federal government. It is based on the principle that information held by the government belongs to the people.
There are exceptions, of course. If a FOIA request would cause personal privacy to be violated, the information can be withheld, or at least edited to eliminate the personal references.
That sounded good to AT&T, which apparently sees itself as a person. So it went all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that documents it had provided to the FCC should not be released to the public.
You can see how AT&T might think that. It wasn't long ago, after all, that the Court held in the Citizens United case that corporations can be treated as persons when it comes to political advertising and that their First Amendment rights would be violated if they were prohibited from running political ads. The ruling was seen as strengthening corporations' influence over elections.
But this time the Court took a narrower view. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts held that adjectives like “personal” do not always carry the same meaning as their corresponding noun – “person” in this case.
Expounding on that topic, Robert noted the differences bertween “crank” and “cranky,” “corn” and “corny,” “crab” and “crabbed.”
But, with no dissents heard, Roberts ended with the hope “that AT&T will not take it personally.”
Judicial humor aside, the decision protects – at least for now – citizens' rights to see documents of public importance gathered by the government at taxpayers' expense