Language lessons from the Supreme Court

by David Alm on March 2, 2011

Go English! More specifically, go language geeks, wherever they may be. In this case, they’re in the Supreme Court, which ruled this week that AT&T may not claim exemption from the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that it is a corporation, and thus, a “person.”

While corporations are technically treated as persons, with all the attendant rights and responsibilities, the crux of the Court’s ruling rested on a key comp onen t of AT&T’s own position: the company argued that some documents it had provided to the government should not be released to the public because of an exemption to the FOIA that applies to records that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Justice John G. Roberts went to town with that one. He explained that just because AT&T may be treated as a legal “person,” the adjective “personal” doesn’t come with the package. Just as “corny” has nothing to do with corn, and “pastoral” has nothing to do with a pastor, the term “personal” simply cannot be applied to a giant corporation that doesn’ t wan t to show anyone its diary.

After a lengthy explication of the point, he finished with one final jab: “We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.”


Jeff McMahon March 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Wow, a Bush appointee with a sense of humor.

David Alm March 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm

I know! Hilarious.

Brandon March 2, 2011 at 4:43 pm

I love the decision, but is it too language-geeky to quibble over the connections between craft/crafty, squirrel/squirrelly, and pastor/pastoral?

David Alm March 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Not at all, Brandon. Quibble away.

Shruti March 2, 2011 at 9:50 pm

The decision is a nice read: Oral argument was apparently lively as well:

David Alm March 3, 2011 at 7:13 am

Thanks, Shruti. Excellent additions.

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