Court Battles

Supreme Court rules against newspaper over information request, giving confidentiality win to businesses

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled 6-3 against a newspaper seeking records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on stores' financial data, finding that sharing the business data could harm the companies.

The Argus Leader in South Dakota had filed a FOIA request with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) asking for stores' redemption data on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The USDA fulfilled part of the paper's FOIA request by giving them the names and addresses of the stores, but declined to provide the SNAP data under Exemption 4 of FOIA, which blocks agencies from handing over "trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential."

The newspaper sued to obtain the records and originally secured rulings in its favor. But the Supreme Court found that the data is confidential.

"At least where commercial or financial information is both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of private, the information is 'confidential' within the meaning of Exemption 4," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh signed on to Gorsuch's majority opinion.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor partially dissented in the case.

In that opposing opinion, Breyer argued that sharing the information "must also cause genuine harm to the owner's economic or business interests."

"The whole point of FOIA is to give the public access to information it cannot otherwise obtain," Breyer wrote. "So the fact that private actors have 'customarily and actually treated' commercial information as secret cannot be enough to justify nondisclosure."