A statement after the ruling by rights advocate Public Citizen said, "The Supreme Court's decision is an important victory for government transparency."
FOIA requires federal agencies to make records and documents publicly available on request, subject to several exemptions in the law. One of those exemptions covers law enforcement records when the disclosure of those records "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
A trade association filed a FOIA request for records in a Federal Communications Commission investigation of alleged overbilling of the government by AT&T.
The FCC agreed that the records should be turned over, but a U.S. appeals court agreed with AT&T that the personal privacy exemption extends to corporations.
The appeals court said Congress in the past had defined "person" to include corporations.
The Supreme Court reversed. Writing for the entire court, Chief Justice John Roberts said corporations do not enjoy the personal privacy exemption under FOIA. Roberts conceded that in the legal sense, "person" often includes a corporation, but said the Supreme Court gives a term its ordinary definition when it is not defined in a statute such as FOIA.
Roberts said AT&T provided "scant support" for its definition of the statutory language.
Justice Elena Kagan, the court's newest member and former U.S. solicitor general, did not take part in the case.