* Supreme Court accepts U.S. government's position
* Business groups supported AT&T
* At issue is freedom of information law exemption
(Adds company, other reaction)
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, March 1 AT&T Inc (T.N) and other
corporations do not have personal privacy rights to prevent
disclosure of federal government records about them, the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
The justices unanimously overturned a ruling by a U.S.
appeals court for the telecommunications company that
corporations can assert personal privacy in claiming the
records should be exempt from disclosure.
The high court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John
Roberts, agreed with the Obama administration's argument that
the personal privacy exemption under the Freedom of Information
law applied only to individuals, not to corporations.
"We respect the court's decision," a company spokesman said
in a brief statement.
A public interest group applauded the ruling.
"If records could be withheld on the theory that they would
'embarrass' a corporation, as AT&T had argued, the public would
be deprived of important information about corporate wrongdoing
and the government's response to it," said Adina Rosenbaum, an
attorney for the group Public Citizen.
Business groups supported AT&T and said corporations have
long enjoyed a range of rights, including privacy rights.
AT&T argued the Federal Communications Commission should
keep secret all records about it during an investigation into
its participation in the federal E-Rate program, which helps
schools and libraries get Internet access.
AT&T told the FCC in 2004 that an internal investigation
had revealed certain irregularities in the company's billings
to a Connecticut school under the program.
The FCC launched an investigation that led to a December
2004 settlement in which AT&T agreed to pay $500,000 and to
adopt a two-year compliance program.
RECORDS SOUGHT BY TRADE ASSOCIATION
CompTel, a trade association representing some of AT&T's
competitors, requested all records in the FCC's file under the
Freedom of Information Act.
The FCC decided to release some of the records, but AT&T
said that disclosing any information violated its right to
personal privacy and the appeals court agreed.
Roberts in the Supreme Court's opinion overturned that
He said the word personal ordinarily referred to
individuals and dictionary definitions also suggested it does
not usually relate to corporations. Roberts said AT&T provided
scant support that personal denoted corporations.
Roberts said the law's protection against disclosure of law
enforcement information on the grounds it would constitute an
unwarranted invasion of personal privacy does not extend to
"We trust that AT&T will not take it personally," he said.
The law, which dates back to 1966, protects against the
release of trade secrets, certain law enforcement records and
information that allows people to be personally identified.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont who chairs
the Judiciary Committee, praised the decision and said it will
help ensure that the law remained a "meaningful safeguard for
the American people's right to know."
The Supreme Court case is FCC v. AT&T, No. 09-1279.
(Reporting by James Vicini; editing by Gerald E. McCormick,
Maureen Bavdek and Andre Grenon)