Decision in FCC v. AT&T

The Supreme Court has decided FCC v. AT&T, the most recent case in which I filed an amicus brief, which I wrote about here. The issue in the case is whether corporations are protected by the “personal privacy” exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act, and the Court unanimously ruled that (as my brief had argued) they are not. The decision is available here.

In my unbiased opinion, the opinion was influenced by the brief in several respects.

First, the opinion tracks the argument in the brief that the meaning of an adjective derived from a noun doesn’t necessarily correspond directly to the meaning of the noun:

Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always. Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own.

Second, this passage draws on some of the many examples provided in the brief of how personal is actually used:

“Personal” ordinarily refers to individuals. We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence, or personal tragedy as referring to corporations or 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.

Certainly, if the chief executive officer of a corporation approached the chief financial officer and said, “I have something personal to tell you,” we would not assume the CEO was about to discuss company business. Responding to a request for information, an individual might say, “that’s personal.” A company spokesman, when asked for information about the company, would not. In fact, we often use the word “personal” to mean precisely the opposite of business-related: We speak of personal expenses and business expenses, personal life and work life, personal opinion and a company’s view.

Third, I hear echoes of the brief here:

AT&T’s argument treats the term “personal privacy” as simply the sum of its two words: the privacy of a person. Under that view, the defined meaning of the noun “person,” or the asserted specialized legal meaning, takes on greater significance. But 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.

Even if I can’t claim an assist for this passage, it reflects a rather nuanced appreciation of meaning, which is nice to see.

[Updated to add a link.]

3 responses to “Decision in FCC v. AT&T

  1. I too am fascinated by the AT&T decision and its careful analysis of meaning. I wrote a brief post about the decision on my own blog, which is also about law and language. (Here’s the post:

    One of my more erudite readers pointed me to your recent post about the decision and your role in it. I’ve just visited your blog, and the instant I saw the lawn disclaimer, I knew I’d found a gem. I look forward to following your blog, and I hope you’ll take a look at mine.

    Dianne Rosky

  2. Pingback: Wednesday round-up |

  3. Pingback: Blawg Review #302

Leave a Reply