Department of the Air Force v. Rose

PETITIONER: Department of the Air Force
LOCATION: Approximate site of car accident

DOCKET NO.: 74-489
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 425 US 352 (1976)
ARGUED: Oct 08, 1975
DECIDED: Apr 21, 1976

Barrington D. Parker, Jr. - for respondents
Daniel M. Friedman - for petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for Department of the Air Force v. Rose

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 08, 1975 in Department of the Air Force v. Rose

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 21, 1976 in Department of the Air Force v. Rose

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the Court in 74-489, Department of the Air Force against Rose, will be announced by Mr. Justice Brennan.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

The United States Air Force Academy has an Honor Code.

Under that code, cadets pledge that they will not lie, steal, or cheat, or tolerate among their numbers anyone who does.

Now that code is administered by an Honor Committee composed of Academy cadets.

Alleged violations of the Code are adjudicated by that committee and the consequences for a cadet found guilty of the violation can be very serious indeed.

There is also an Ethics Code, violations of which are breaches of conduct, less serious than Honor Code violations and that code too is cadet administered.

Records are prepared and retained by both the Honor Code and Ethics Code committees, respecting the adjudication of violations they hear, in Honor Code violations, for example, the case summaries, usually only a page are prepared and posted on 40 squadron bulleting boards throughout the academy, but with except in cases of guilt findings of serious offenses with the names of the cadets involved deleted and alike distribution is made of Ethics Code summaries.

Confidentiality of these summaries was maintained by Academy custom and practice in the sense that cadets generally are instructed not to read them, except when they seek guidance as to the conduct that falls within or without the codes.

Now this case arose when the respondents who are students or were, when the case was brought, students at New York University Law School and editors of its law review, sought access to both Honor and Ethics Code summaries for personal references or other identifying information deleted however.

In connection with their law review article on the subject of disciplinary procedures and systems at the military service academies generally, because I gather both the Naval Academy at Annapolis and the Military Academy at West Point also function under Honor Codes.

But when the academy, the Air Force Academy that is, and the Department of the Air Force denied access, the respondents brought this action under the Freedom of Information Act, and the Air Force defended the action on the ground that the exemption or rather that the summaries were exempt from disclosure, are specific exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act itself, namely Exemption 2 that exempts matters related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency or under Exemption 6 that exempts personal and medical files and similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

And the District Court for the Southern District New York dismissed the suit, holding that indeed Exemption 2 did exempt the summaries from disclosure and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed.

The Court of Appeals held that Exemption 2 did not exempt the summaries from disclosure and then turned to Exemption 6, and held that Exemption 6, at least in respect of the determination required by that exemption, namely whether a disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy of the cadets or the subjects of the summaries, required that the summaries be turned over to the District Court for in camera inspection, and that the Air force cooperate with the judge in redacting the summaries so as to delete personal references and all other identifying information and we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

We hold that the in camera procedure, ordered by the Court of Appeals, will further the statutory goal of Exemption 6, which enacts a workable compromise between individual rights and preservation of public rights to government information.

These limited statutory exemptions can’t obscure the basic policy that disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the Freedom of Information Act and the public does have a substantial concern with the Air Force Academy’s administration of disciplinary procedures that affect the training of Air Force officers and their military careers.

The Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Blackmun and Mr. Justice Rehnquist dissent and each has filed a dissenting opinion.

Mr. Justice Stevens took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice Brennan.