The United States Supreme Court has reaffirmed the strong protection of personal privacy interests under the Freedom of Information Act in a case involving the names and home addresses of returned Haitian refugees voluntarily interviewed by U.S. officials regarding the conditions of their repatriation.
On December 16, in its first FOIA decision in two years, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous judgment upholding Exemption 6 protection in Department of State v. Ray, 112 S. Ct. 541 (1991). Applying for the first time its landmark privacy decision in Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749 (1989), the Court overturned a lower court order that would have required disclosure of personal identifying information for possible use in pending immigration proceedings.
The Ray case arose under the FOIA in connection with Miami attorney Michael Ray's representation of Haitian nationals fighting deportation to their homeland. Charging that refugees such as his clients would be mistreated by the Haitian government upon their return, Ray sought FOIA access to the full details of State Department reports documenting the fair treatment of Haitian refugees previously returned. (The State Department had interviewed hundreds of repatriated Haitians in reaching its conclusion of fair treatment, with the understanding that their identities as voluntary interviewees would be protected.)
When the State Department withheld the interviewees' names and other identifying details from Ray on personal privacy grounds under Exemption 6, he brought suit arguing that he needed them in order to "re-interview" those Haitians and thereby serve a "public interest" in monitoring the accuracy of State's interview process. Both the district and appellate courts agreed, ordering disclosure on the basis of such an "overriding public interest." See FOIA Update, Winter 1991, at 1.
The Supreme Court, however, flatly rejected such a position. Writing for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens (who also authored the Reporters Committee opinion) first determined that release of the Haitian interviewees' identities "would be a significant invasion of their privacy because it would subject them to possible embarrassment and retaliatory action." 112 S. Ct. at 548 n.12. Disclosure under the circumstances of the case could be regarded as "a special affront" to their privacy interests, he observed, and those interests "must be given great weight." Id. at 548-49.
Turning to the "public interest" side of the Exemption 6 balancing equation, Justice Stevens further found that the "public interest has been adequately served by disclosure of the redacted interview summaries" in this case. Id. at 549. Disclosure of the interviewees' names and home addresses "would not shed any additional light on the Government's conduct," he concluded, and thus would constitute a "clearly unwarranted" invasion of their privacy interests. Id.
In so ruling, the Court stopped short of adopting a rule precluding consideration of any "indirect" public benefit derived from a FOIA disclosure. Rather, Justice Stevens placed dispositive emphasis upon the "speculative" nature of the indirect public benefit asserted by Ray in this case, declaring: "Mere speculation about hypothetical public benefits cannot outweigh a demonstrably significant invasion of privacy." Id.
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