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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - AT&T Inc and other corporations do not have personal privacy rights to prevent disclosure of federal government records about them, the 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.
Public interest groups supported the government.
They said that under AT&T's position, government records could be withheld about coal mine safety violations, offshore oil rig problems, dirty conditions at food manufacturing plants and questionable investment bank financial dealings.
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.
AT&T TO PAY $500,000
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.
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 decision.
He said the word personal ordinarily referred to individuals and dictionary definitions also suggested that it does not usually relate to corporations. Roberts said AT&T provided scant support that personal denoted corporations.
The Supreme Court case is FCC v. AT&T, No. 09-1279.
Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Maureen Bavdek