The Supreme Court of the United States ruled Monday that the government could not use an exemption in the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to withhold certain Navy maps and data from the public.
FOIA requires federal agencies to make documents publicly available upon request, but contains various exemptions to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information.
In a 8-to-1 decision, the court ruled that the exemption for documents “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency” could not be used by the Navy to withhold maps showing the extent of damage expected from an explosion at an ammunition dump at Puget Sound, Washington.
Glen Milner, a longtime community activists from nearby Port Townsend, requested copies of the maps but the Navy refused to release the data, citing the “personnel rules and practices” exemption.
“These data and maps calculate and visually portray the magnitude of hypothetical detonations,” Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court, said in the decision. “By no stretch of imagination do they relate to ‘personnel rules and practices,’ as that term is most naturally understood. They concern the physical rules governing explosives, not the workplace rules governing sailors.”
Justice Kagan also warned that the “personnel rules and practices” exemption could be used as an “all-purpose back-up provision to withhold sensitive records that do not fall within any of FOIA’s more targeted exemptions” if the court had ruled in favor of the government.
In a similar decision, the Supreme Court ruled last week that AT&T and other corporations do not have personal privacy rights under FOIA.
Claiming they were a “corporation citizen,” AT&T tried to use the FOIA personal privacy exemption to prevent the disclosure of federal government documents about the company.
“Personal’ in the phrase ‘personal privacy’ conveys more than just ‘of a person,'” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his decision. “It suggest a type of privacy evocative of human concerns—not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.”