Supremely Personal Interpretation

Last week's column discussed how two Realtors somehow found themselves portrayed in a “CSI” script, and how the Court of Appeals said no reasonable person would think the fictional characters were portraying their living, breathing counterparts. I don‟t know about you, but I thought the court's reasoning was a bit stretched.

Well, it looks like that affliction has infected the United States Supreme Court. In its recent decision, Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T, a unanimous court opined that even if you're a person it's still possible you might not have anything personal.

Allow me to explain. First, please understand that I am no fan of AT&T. But when a decision makes you scratch your head, it really doesn't matter who the parties are. The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, hired AT&T to help it with bringing advanced telecommunications and information services to the country‟s schools and libraries.

In 2004, AT&T found out that it had been overcharging the FCC for services rendered, and basically turned itself in. This triggered an investigation by the FCC. AT&T cooperated with the investigation and turned over reams of documents, including pricing and billing information. After giving the FCC all of these documents, AT&T then settled for $500,000.

Guess what? An outfit named CompTel (a trade association representing some of AT&T‟s competitors) got wind of the investigation and submitted a Freedom of Information request to see everything AT&T had given the FCC. AT&T opposed the request, taking the position that it is “a „private corporate citizen‟ with personal privacy rights that should be protected from disclosure that would "embarrass‟ it. The FCC agreed to withhold some documents, but it did authorize release of others. AT&T sued the FCC, seeking to stop the disclosure.

The Court of Appeals agreed with AT&T. The Court of Appeals pointed out that the U.S. Code‟s definition of a “person” includes corporations. Therefore, corporations are entitled to some of the personal privacy protections found in the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. As the Court of Appeals said, “the root from which the statutory word (personal) … is derived” is the defined term “person” so “(i)t would be very odd indeed for an adjectival form of a defined term not to refer back to that defined term.”

In other words, if a corporation is a person then it can have personal privacy. The United States Supreme Court, in a decision where the liberal Democratic justices joined with the conservative Republican ones, rejected that reasoning. Harking back to those days when Bill Clinton said, “It all depends upon what the meaning of „is‟ is.” The justices said that “person” does not equate to “personal.”

“Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always. Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own.” For instance, the word “corny” has nothing to do with an ear of corn or being “crabby” doesn't mean you're a crustacean. Chief Justice Roberts then goes on for several pages explaining why a corporation cannot have anything personal, including personal privacy, even though a corporation is a
person. AT&T pointed out that it was subject to “personal jurisdiction,” and that Webster‟s defines “personal” as “of or pertaining to a particular person.”

Unfortunately for AT&T, this was a case of where it and the U.S. Supreme Court would agree to disagree. I personally could not find sufficient justification for the Supreme Court‟s opinion, but then there‟s no danger that I‟m going to be a Supreme Court justice anytime soon. But I did think the final word from the court was a little too insensitive, “The protection in FOIA against disclosure of law enforcement information on the ground that it would
constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy does not extend to corporations. We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.©

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