AT&T Case Shows Supreme Court Isn’t Big On Privacy Rights For Companies


Credit: flickr / dbking

A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court granted extraordinary “free speech” rights to corporations, when it ruled (in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) that corporations had a right to spend money during elections with few limitations. That decision overturned election-spending laws going back to the 1980s and suggested that the current court had very expansive ideas about corporate “personhood” that could lead to a series of business-friendly decisions. (And indeed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was on the winning side of 13 of the 16 cases it weighed in on in the last term.) But early reports of oral arguments in FCC v. AT&T suggest that while the Supreme Court might be giving some big wins to major business, it draws the line at protecting a company’s “personal privacy.”

The case involves an FCC investigation into accusations that AT&T (NYSE: T) overcharged schools in New London, Conn. AT&T settled the FCC’s case in 2004, agreeing to pay $500,000 but not admitting to any wrongdoing.

A lot of interesting documents were produced along the way, and a group of AT&T competitors sought some of those documents through a Freedom of Information Act request. The FCC deleted some material it deemed was connected to AT&T trade secrets, and the names of individuals. But when AT&T suggested that more documents should be withheld because the release might violate AT&T’s own “personal” privacy, the FCC drew the line. AT&T sued and won its case at the appellate level. (AT&T is the plaintiff in this case.) The Philadelphia appeals court that sided with AT&T said that under the current rules of corporate personhood, the company could use privacy laws to keep the documents secret.

But that case has moved up to the Supreme Court, and media in the courtroom Wednesday painted a picture of even leading advocates of corporate rights showing deep skepticism towards AT&T’s argument. The WSJ quotes Chief Justice John Roberts saying:

“I don’t think there’s much to the argument that because ‘person’ means one thing, ‘personal’ has to be the same relation,” he said. The chief justice observed that he had easily found “other examples where the adjective was very different from the root noun,” including “squirrel” and “squirrelly,” “pastor” and “pastoral,” and “craft” and “crafty.”

And Scalia, quoted in the New York Times, said: “Can you give me any examples in common usage where people would refer to the personal privacy of a corporation?” Justice Scalia asked Mr. Klineberg. “Do you have any examples from The New York Times (NYSE: NYT), from, you know, Boswell, from anywhere, that anybody refers to the interests of a corporation as the ‘personal privacy’ of General Motors?”

AT&T’s lawyer argued that the court shouldn’t allow the law “to be a tool for an organization’s adversaries to obtain access to harmful or embarrassing documents” that aren’t of public import. For example, the documents might reveal disparaging remarks by AT&T employees about the company’s customers or about government regulators.

Corporations are usually on the defendant’s side of privacy lawsuits. But the discussion during oral arguments Wednesday suggests that when they’re on the plaintiff’s side of the aisle in a privacy lawsuit, even though the Supreme Court has granted some controversial “personal” rights to corporations, there will be a sharp limit on what kind of powers corporations have. If AT&T were to win in this case, many businesses might want to use privacy laws to file suits and keep embarrassing information under wraps.



Here’s an amamendment to address the broader issue raised in my earlier post..

(Commentary in {..}, not part of proposed Amendment}

No candidate for the Presidency or either house of Congress shall accept contributions in cash or in kind from any organization or group of persons for expenses incurred in a campaign for that office. All such contributions shall be made only by individual citizens who shall attest that the funds or other items of value are from their own resources and that they have not received, nor have they been promised, offsetting items of value from any other party in exchange for their contribution. The identity and extent of contributions to such campaigns shall be made public for a period of thirty days from receipt before being employed or used as collateral for a loan by such campaigns. Organizations of any type, {i.e. corporations, unions, gun rights advocates, environmental protection groups, even “Susie’s Flower Shop”, a theoretical small business cited in the Citizen’s United Case,} may, without restriction, expend money to advocate a position on any issue before or likely to come before the electorate insofar as no candidate’s name or description is included in their expressions of advocacy.

No person may be elected or appointed to either house of Congress more than two times.
{The intent of the above is to bring “transparency” to campaign financing by removing any group from the process whereby that group may conceal the identity of an individual contributor as well as limiting the influence of such groups or “special interests”. It further prevents an organization from making such contributions when an individual within that organization, such as a union member or corporation stockholder, may oppose the candidate. Considering the large equity position in certain corporations that the federal government has recently taken in response to the economic crises, this is particularly important in excluding such influence. The money from “special interest” groups will then go to promote that for which they exist, their “special interest”. The media will be directed to expositions on the issues facing the electorate, thus enhancing discussion and hopefully understanding of issues, bereft of personalities.

The term-limits will serve to diminish the motive of any individual or group to who may wish to influence that office-holder by gift or other form of remuneration. }


Its time to settle just what determines the rights of ALL groups, not jus corporations. The Citizens Uited case opened the issue and shows how according those rights to a group can undermine democracy. But will those who assail grasnting individual rights to corporations also back limiting the rights of, say, a union, or the Sierra Club, or a PAC, or even SPEBSQSA?

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