The constitutional privacy rights of business entities

Larry Ribstein —  2 March 2011

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Roberts, held in FCC v. ATT, Inc.:

We reject the argument that because “person” is defined for purposes of FOIA to include a corporation, the phrase “personal privacy” in Exemption 7(C) reaches corporations as well. 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. We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.

Professor Bainbridge objects:

The utterly specious word games that drive this opinion simply confirm that Chief Justice Roberts  has failed to articulate  a plausible analytical framework for this important problem.

But I’m okay with the opinion.  As I’ve said about Citizens United and corporate speech rights:

corporations, as artificial entities, cannot speak in the same sense as humans do, and . . . the First Amendment is more properly concerned with the expressive rights of the individuals who speak through corporations than with the rights of artificial entities.

Same goes for “corporate” privacy. And this approach isn’t necessarily bad for business.  As I said in the above article about locating speech rights in corporations, “[a]n implication of this move is that the speech gets less protection than non-corporate speech because the right-holder is an artificial entity.” 

Speech rights differ from privacy rights because as I argued in my article linked above, “[t]he First Amendment does not guard corporations’ expressive rights, but rather the public’s interest in hearing what corporations have to say.”

In any event, the Court saved corporate constitutional rights for another day, noting that  

[t]his case does not call upon us to pass on the scope of a corporation’s “privacy” interests as a matter of constitutional or common law. The discrete question before us is instead whether Congress used the term “personal privacy” to refer to the privacy of artificial persons in FOIA Exemption 7(C).

I have written on the constitutional privacy question in The Constitutional Conception of the Corporation, 4 Supreme Court Economic Review 95, 139-40 (1995) (most footnotes omitted):

The theories of the corporation have potential implications for the application of constitutional rules other than those discussed in this article. For example, consistent with the corporate person theory, the Court has limited corporations’ protection against self-incrimination under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments FN 176 on the theory that corporations are artificial entities. However, under the contract theory individuals would not lose Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights merely because they work for corporate firms. For example, the Fifth Amendment could be applied in appropriate cases to protect an individual from having to turn over documents which incriminate that individual even if she has custody of the records as a corporate agent. To be sure, this might allow corporations to escape some government control because they can choose agents who can claim privilege. But given the assumptions underlying the contract theory, owners have market incentives not to insulate their agents from the law. * * * But it follows from the contract analysis that corporate “entities” should not be entitled to Fifth Amendment rights because this might frustrate the firm’s contracts. The parties to the firm might choose to neutralize the self- incrimination privilege and facilitate legal surveillance by giving custody over documents to a custodian who could not assert a privilege in connection with proceedings against the corporation.

FN 176:  See United States v Kordel, 397 US 1 (1970); Hale v Henkel, 201 US 43 (1906) (reasoning that the corporation was a separate entity for Fifth Amendment purposes although not for purposes of applying the Fourth Amendment). By contrast, the privilege against self-incrimination is available to protect against requests for personal, as distinguished from corporate, records. See Wilson v United States, 221 US 361 (1911). The privilege has also been denied to non-corporate associations that are considered collective entities. See Bellis v United States, 417 US 85 (1974) (law firm); United States v White, 322 US 694 (1944) (labor union). * * *

Partnerships may have very limited rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendment.  See Bromberg & Ribstein on Partnership, §3.05(b)(1) (some footnotes in brackets):

Neither the partner’s individual rights to possess partnership property nor the fact that the partner possesses such property in a representative capacity on behalf of the firm and the other partners has been determinative. * * * [I]n Bellis v. United States, [417 U.S. 85 (1974)] the Supreme Court refused to recognize the privilege in a three-partner law firm that “was not an informal association or a temporary arrangement for the undertaking of a few projects of short-lived duration . . . [but] represented a formal institutional arrangement organized for the continuing conduct of the firm’s legal practice.” The Court went on to state that “[t]his might be a different case if it involved a small family partnership [citing Slutsky and In re Subpoena Duces Tecum, n.9, above] or . . . if there were some other pre-existing relationship of confidentiality among the partners.”

In light of the Bellis holding that an “institutional arrangement” is sufficient, and its application to the very small partnership involved in Bellis, it is unclear what room is left for the “small family partnership” qualification. Indeed, in post-Bellis cases the self-incrimination privilege has been held not necessarily applicable to small, husband-wife partnerships.

In short, the Court has tended to look through the entity to individual interests.  But, as I said in a footnote to the above text: 

Despite the attenuation of the self-incrimination privilege in the partnership setting, the aggregate-entity distinction is still alive to some extent in that the Court has refused to recognize any Fifth Amendment privilege as to corporate records, even if these are owned by a sole proprietorship corporation. See Braswell v. United States, 487 U.S. 99 (1988).

I hope and suspect that the Court, when confronted with the question, will get rid of the unhelpful Braswell aggregate-entity.

Larry Ribstein

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Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

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