Don't take Supreme Court ruling personally, AT

AT&T might still be sulking.

After all, the Supreme Court last week gave the company a grammar lesson and punctuated it with a giggle.

The bottom line was a big loss for corporate overreaching and a big win for open government records.

It took the justices a day short of six weeks to wave off AT&T's attempt to grab for itself broad "personal privacy" rights that would have undercut the federal Freedom of Information Act.

AT&T was essentially trying to block competitors from using the FOIA to gain information collected during a federal investigation. The company said that because a corporation can be considered a person for some legal purposes, it should have the benefit of a FOIA provision designed to protect "personal privacy."


Clever tactic.

Good thing the court was cleverer still.

AT&T had to give the Federal Communications Commission reams of records for an investigation into overcharging under a government-funded technology program. The case was settled, with AT&T paying $500,000 but not admitting wrongdoing.

When a trade group representing AT&T competitors asked for the investigation file, the FCC withheld documents involving trade secrets and individuals' personal information. But the company said other information shouldn't be released because it was covered by a FOIA exemption protecting law enforcement investigatory records whose disclosure "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

That interpretation could have kept from the public documentation of lax airline maintenance, tainted food, unsafe working conditions and other data important to know even if it embarrasses businesses.

But AT&T convinced not one of the justices that corporate personhood brings with it personal privacy rights just by virtue of the words being derivative. (The vote was 8-0; Justice Elena Kagan didn't participate.)

During oral arguments in January, Chief Justice John Roberts started musing aloud about words that change meaning when they go from noun to adjective: craft and crafty, squirrel and squirrely.

He apparently liked that train of thought so well he kept going: "The noun 'crab' refers variously to a crustacean and a type of apple, while the related adjective 'crabbed' can refer to handwriting that is 'difficult to read,'" he wrote in FCC v. AT&T, citing Webster's Third New International Dictionary.


Can't you just see him thumbing mischievously through his Webster's and his Oxford English Dictionary?

"'Corny' can mean 'using familiar stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,' which has little to do with 'corn' ('the seeds of any of the cereal grasses used for food')," he wrote, "and while 'crank is 'a part of an axis bent at right angles,' 'cranky' can mean 'given to fretful fussiness.'"

What a word nerd.

He also wrote, "We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence or personal tragedy as referring to corporations of other artificial entities. This is not to say that corporations do not have correspondence, influence or tragedies of their own, only that we do not use the word 'personal' to describe them."

Then there was his math lesson about the sum of two words: "Two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation. We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold. A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed. 'Personal' in the phrase 'personal privacy' conveys more than just 'of a person.' It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns — not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T."

Roberts and some of his colleagues are thought by critics to have over-abiding affection for corporations. But this time, they conveyed something else.

"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," the ruling concluded.

"We trust that AT&T will not take it personally."


AT&T probably isn't amused by Roberts' sense of humor. But he's a scream.

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