Can You Invade a Corporation’s Privacy?

In this post, Steven Roll, ASBPE-immediate past president, looks at a case that could impact journalists’ ability to obtain corporate information uncovered as part of a criminal investigation.

Does disclosing information gathered as part of a criminal investigation of a corporation violate that company’s privacy rights?

It will if AT&T gets its way in a case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday. In FCC v. AT&T the company argued that it fit within an exception to the Freedom of Information Act allowing the government to withhold information uncovered during a criminal investigation if it constitutes an “invasion of personal privacy.”

At issue is whether this exemption applies to the privacy of a corporation.

The case follows a high court ruling last year in Citizens United v. FCC, which recognized the right to free speech for corporations and struck down rules restricting legal entities’ campaign contributions.

Lyle Dennison of the SCOTUS blog explains the impact of Citizens United :

This was a constitutional decision, laying down (essentially for the first time), a sweeping free-speech right in politics for “special interest” bodies of all types with the concept of “speech” clearly embracing spending money to influence election outcomes.  If individuals have considerable freedom to express themselves politically, corporations, labor unions, and other “special interest” entities now do, too.

AT&T’s argument for personal privacy didn’t seem to fare as well as the legal entities involved in Citizens United. But the case signals the continuation  a history of corporations seeking additional rights for themselves that dates back to the Equal Protection Clause.

In her brief on behalf of the The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Lucy Dalglish explained the broader implications of allowing corporations to assert privacy rights under FOIA:

At stake is the media’s ability to serve its constitutionally protected watchdog function by ensuring that government agencies are properly and effectively exercising their regulatory functions. Allowing corporations to keep secret results of government investigations due to the risk of negative exposure that may accompany the public disclosure of such reports would serve to insulate corporate activity from journalists and other public interest watchdog groups that work to maintain accountability and keep the public informed.

As journalists who cover business entities, it’s important to monitor corporate efforts to influence or impede the flow of public information.

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