United States Department of State v. Washington Post Company

PETITIONER: United States Department of State
RESPONDENT: Washington Post Company
LOCATION: Mississippi Chancery Court

DOCKET NO.: 81-535
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 456 US 595 (1982)
ARGUED: Mar 31, 1982
DECIDED: May 17, 1982

David E. Kendall - on behalf of the Respondent
Kenneth Steven Geller - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for United States Department of State v. Washington Post Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 31, 1982 in United States Department of State v. Washington Post Company

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in United States Department of State against the Washington Post.

Mr. Geller, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Kenneth Steven Geller:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This is a Freedom of Information Act case here on writ of certiorari to the District of Columbia circuit.

The case involves Exemption 6 of the Act, the personal privacy exemption, which protects against mandatory public disclosure of government documents that meet two criteria.

First, the document must satisfy the so-called threshold test by qualifying as a personnel, medical or similar file.

And second, if the threshold test is satisfied, it must be shown that disclosure of the document would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

This is the so-called balancing test of the exemption.

The question presented here involves the proper interpretation of the phrase 6.

And the facts may be briefly stated.

In September 1979 the Washington Post submitted an FOIA request to the State Department for any documents indicating whether two Iranian officials, Dr. Ali Behzadnia and Dr. Ibrahim Yazdi, were American citizens.

The State Department denied the request on the basis of Exemption 6.

After the Washington Post brought suit to obtain the documents, the State Department submitted affidavits from an Assistant Secretary of State saying that in light of the social and political conditions then existing in Iran, which were briefly described, any confirmation or denial by the United States government that either individual is a United States citizen would be likely to cause a substantial threat of physical harm to the individual.

The affidavits also listed several recent examples of Iranians who had suffered serious harm because their names had been linked to the United States in official documents.

Despite these unrebutted affidavits, the District Court ordered the State Department to comply with the Post's FOIA request, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The D.C. Circuit held that the government had failed to satisfy the threshold requirement of Exemption 6 by showing that the documents requested constituted personnel, medical or similar files.

There's no question that this was not a personnel or medical file.

The court said that to qualify as a similar file a record must incorporate, and I quote,

"intimate details about an individual, information of the same magnitude that is highly personal or as intimate in nature as that at stake in personnel and medical records. "

The Court of Appeals concluded that the fact of current United States citizenship was simply not an intimate detail.

As a result, it ordered release of the documents without reaching the balancing part of the exemption; that is, without considering at all whether in light of the State Department's unrebutted evidentiary submission, disclosure of the documents requested by the Washington Post would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the individuals named in the documents.

If we should agree with you, Mr. Geller, do we sent it back for consideration of that element?

Kenneth Steven Geller:

Yes, yes.

We don't decide that here.

Kenneth Steven Geller:

That's correct.

I think it would be helpful to begin discussion of this case by stating first exactly what is and what isn't involved here, and then by stating exactly what the opposing arguments of counsel are, because I think that respondent's briefs have attempted to obscure the relevant issue.

As I just said in response to Justice Brennan's question, the question presented here is not whether the documents requested by the Post can be withheld from the public.

Even if this Court eventually agrees with the government as to the correct meaning of the threshold test of Exemption 6, there would still have to be a remand.

I'm curious as to why you say there would have to be a remand.

Is the balancing test performed on the basis of a lot of facts that would be have to be ascertained at a trial, or is it just the judgment of the court before which the matter is pending that on balance, you know, A wins or B wins?