* 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 (Reuters) - 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.
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 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 corporations.
“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)