High court hears case on corporate privacy

By Mark Sherman

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A year after the Supreme Court expanded the rights of corporations to influence elections, the court took up a new case Wednesday asking the justices to recognize that companies can be treated like people in other contexts.

But the hourlong argument in an unusual freedom of information dispute made clear that, this time, the justices seem inclined to rule against corporate interests.

The court appeared likely to hold that corporations may not assert personal privacy interests to prevent the government from releasing documents about them under the federal freedom of information law.

At issue is information gathered by the Federal Communications Commission during an investigation of AT&T-- information that the telecommunications giant wants to remain secret. A federal appeals court agreed with AT&T that the company could assert a personal privacy exception in the sunshine law.

The Obama administration wants the high court to reverse that ruling and hold that only individuals may use the exception.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who sided with corporations in last year's campaign finance case, said he found it strange to apply the phrase "personal privacy" to a corporation.

"You talk about personal characteristics. That doesn't mean the characteristics of General Motors. You talk about personal qualities. It doesn't mean the qualities of General Motors," Scalia said.

There was no mention of the Citizens United ruling -- issued almost exactly a year ago -- that sharply divided the court in freeing corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums to influence federal elections. The justices displayed a marked lack of enthusiasm for protecting corporate interests in the way AT&T is asking, especially because the law protects against the release of trade secrets and information that allows people to be personally identified.

Still, AT&T's lawyer expressed concerns that if the court were to rule against his client, a company's competitors would seek the release of embarrassing information such as employees' frank e-mail exchanges that disparage regulators and customers.

The lawyer, Geoffrey Klineberg, said the internal documents of nonprofit groups that have been investigated also could be revealed through a freedom of information request.

Justice Stephen Breyer pressed Klineberg for any example of such embarrassing disclosures in the nearly 37-year-old law. Klineberg could not give any.

AT&T wants the FCC to keep secret all the information it gathered from the company during an investigation into its participation in the federal E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries get Internet access.

The FCC had released some of the information under an open records request, but withheld some, citing exemptions that cover trade secrets and humans' right to privacy.

COMPTEL, a trade group representing some AT&T competitors, filed the FOIA request that led to the court ruling.

Justice Elena Kagan, who worked on the dispute when she was at the Justice Department, is not taking part in the case.

A decision is expected by late June.

The case is FCC v. AT&T, 09-1279.

Published: Fri, Jan 21, 2011