Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued its (unanimous) decision in FCC v. AT&T. The key issue was whether corporations are entitled to a right of personal privacy. Specifically, the Freedom of Information Act exempts “law enforcement records the disclosure of which 'could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.'”
CompTel, a trade association, submitted a FOIA request for documents AT&T had provided to the Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau during an investigation of that company. The Bureau found that Exemption 7(C) applied to individuals identified in AT&T’s submissions but not to the company itself, concluding that corporations do not have “personal privacy” interests as required by the exemption. The FCC agreed with the Bureau, but the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit did not. It held that Exemption 7(C) extends to the “personal privacy” of corporations, reasoning that “personal” is the adjective form of the term “person,” which Congress has defined, as applicable here, to include corporations.
For some interesting background and discussion, see Neal Goldfarb's post on the decision at LAWnLinguistics. You should also take a look at his post from January 19, "Personal privacy ≠ corporate privacy", in which he discusses the amicus brief that he filed in the case.
A key feature of Neal's brief was the use of corpus evidence:
[W]e will rely on evidence of the kind that lexicographers have increasingly come to rely on: the analysis of electronic text collections called “corpora” (the plural of “corpus”). A corpus is like Lexis on steroids. It is a database of texts gathered from a variety of real-world sources (books, newspapers, magazines, transcripts of spoken language) that has been processed in ways that enable one to search for and analyze patterns in the language. So if one wants to find out, say, which nouns are most commonly modified by personal, it is possible to generate a list of those words, ranked by frequency. This provides powerful evidence of what the word can mean; as this Court has noted, “the meaning of a word cannot be determined in isolation, but must be drawn from the context in which it is used.” Lexicographers follow much the same principle.
As Neal explained in his Jan. 19 post,
The brief relied on three corpora: the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), and the TIME Magazine Corpus, all of which are the handiwork of Prof. Mark Davies at Brigham Young University. What we did was to search for the string personal [NOUN], in order to find out what words most frequently filled the NOUN slot.
The results, as we said in the brief, “decisively support the conclusion that personal has developed a specialized meaning such that it is used with regard to human beings, not corporations.” For instance, here are the most frequent pairings in COHA for the 1970s (which was when the current version of the exemption was enacted):
personal life, personal income, personal property, personal interest, personal experience, personal relationship, personal problem, personal reason, personal injury, personal thing, personal appearance, personal contact, personal matter, personal friend, personal power, personal opinion, personal fortune, personal gain, personal history, personal letter, personal use, personal view, personal question, personal tragedy, personal physician
Neal's March 1 post makes a good case that "the opinion was influenced by the brief in several respects". In addition to the corpus evidence, his brief "challenged the appeals court’s conclusion that the meaning of personal is controlled by the statutory definition of person":
To begin with, personal is not the “adjectival form” of person. The suggestion that an adjective can be a form of a noun makes little sense; presumably what AT&T means is that personal is derived from person. But that is wrong as a matter of etymology: personal entered the English language separately from the word person. Both were borrowed from French, where they had evolved from the Latin words personalis and persona, respectively. And although those Latin words had a common origin, that fact does not provide any reliable clue as to what the English word personal means now.
Moreover—and more important—in the 700 years since the first attested use of personal in English, the word has evolved on a semantic trajectory of its own. It is therefore a mistake to treat the meaning of personal as nothing more than the sum of the meanings of its parts: the noun person plus the suffix –al. It is clear from both from dictionary definitions and actual usage that there is more to the meaning of personal than simply “of or pertaining to a particular person.” The word’s meaning—as revealed by the contexts in which it is used—is such that it seems to be used exclusively with reference to human beings.
It's nice to see an important court decision that "reflects a rather nuanced appreciation of meaning", as Neal puts it. And it seems likely to me that in the future, we're likely to see many more applications of corpus evidence in legal arguments about meaning and usage. This is partly because such evidence can be very persuasive, and partly because it's becoming increasingly easy to get.
The linguistic analysis in the decision includes some pointed observations about the possible non-compositionality of adjective-noun combinations:
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.
During the oral argument of the case, which took place on January 19, there were some other notable examples of linguistic reasoning. Thus at 39:04 of the recording, Chief Justice John Roberts observed:
Counsel, your central argument is that because "person" is defined to include corporation, "personal" in the same statute must include corporate.
I tried ((to)) sit down and come up with other examples where the adjective was very different from the root noun
((and)) it turns out it is not hard at all.
You have craft and crafty.
Craft- crafty doesn't have much to do with craft.
Squirrel, squirrely? Right? I mean,
pastor — you have a pastor and pastoral.
Same root, totally different.
So I don't understand the-
I don't think there's much to the argument that because "person" means one thing,
personal has to be the- the same relation.
Update — Lyle Denniston's discussion at SCOTUSblog is worth reading ("Analysis: A word game over 'privacy'"). It starts this way:
In 12 pages of teacher-like explanation of the varying meaning of words, the Supreme Court on Tuesday told business companies organized as corporations the sad news that they are not entitled to the same privacy as human beings enjoy, at least when it comes to records that corporations have handed over to federal government agencies. But, at the end of the 12 pages, in what read like an intentionally clever gesture to make the ruling easier to accept, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., actually implied that corporations do have feelings, and are therefore capable of being offended. “We trust,” the concluding line said, “that AT&T will not take it personally.” In fact, that seemed contradictory to the ruling itself.