United States Department of State v. Ray, et al.
Decided on Dec. 16, 1991; 502 US 164


A. Issues Discussed: Governmental Authority (immigration), 5th and 6th amendments

B. Legal Question Presented:

Was the redaction by the Department of State of private information from immigration interview reports authorized by FOIA Exemption 6, which provides that FOIA disclosure requirements do not apply to personnel and medical files? Would such disclosure constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy?


A. Background:

Respondents, undocumented Haitian immigrants, sought political asylum in the United States. In immigration proceedings they attempted to establish a well founded fear of persecution if returned to Haiti, entitling them to asylum as refugees. The US Department of State's (petitioner) position in the proceedings was that the respondents’ fear was not well founded. To disprove the petitioner's assertion that returnees would not be persecuted, respondents filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for copies of petitioner's immigration interview reports. Respondents' FOIA request produced 17 documents from which names and other identifying information had been redacted. The District Court ordered petitioner to produce the redacted material, finding that the deletions were not authorized by FOIA Exemption 6. The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that that the respondents' privacy interests were outweighed by the public interest in learning whether petitioner was adequately monitoring Haiti’s compliance with its assurance not to persecute returned undocumented Haitian immigrants.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Michael Dean Ray argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Neil Dwight Kolner and Eric J. Sinrod. Kent L. Jones argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Gerson, Deputy Solicitor General Roberts, Leonard Schaitman, and Bruce G. Forrest.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable 
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Debra A. Valentine, David L. Sobel, John A. Powell, Lucas Guttentag, and Gary M. Stern; for the American Newspaper Publishers Association et al. by Robert C. Bernius, Rene´ P. Milam, Barbara Wartelle Wall, Jane E. Kirtley, Richard M. Schmidt, Bruce W. Sanford, James E. Grossberg, and George Freeman; and for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights et al. by David C. Vladeck and Alan B. Morrison. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Petitioner.

"The District Court and the Court of Appeals properly began their analysis by considering the significance of the privacy interest at stake. We are persuaded, however, that several factors, when considered together, make the privacy interest more substantial than the Court of Appeals recognized...

 [T]he Court of Appeals appeared to assume that respondents sought only the names and addresses of the interviewees. But respondents sought - and the District Court ordered that the Government disclose - the unredacted interview summaries. As the Government points out, many of these summaries contain personal details about particular interviewees.

We are also persuaded that the Court of Appeals gave insufficient weight to the fact that the interviews had been conducted pursuant to an assurance of confidentiality. We agree that such a promise does not necessarily prohibit disclosure, but it has a special significance in this case. Not only is it apparent that an interviewee who had been given such an assurance might have been willing to discuss private matters that he or she would not otherwise expose to the public - and therefore would regard a subsequent interview by a third party armed with that information as a special affront to his or her privacy - but, as discussed above, it is also true that the risk of mistreatment gives this group of interviewees an additional interest in assuring that their anonymity is maintained. Finally, we cannot overlook the fact that respondents plan to make direct contact with the individual Haitian returnees identified in the reports. As the Court of Appeals properly recognized, the intent to interview the returnees magnifies the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of their identities...

[T]he Court of Appeals properly recognized that the public interest in knowing whether the State Department has adequately monitored Haiti’s compliance with its promise not to prosecute returnees is cognizable under FOIA. We are persuaded, however, that this public interest has been adequately served by disclosure of the redacted interview summaries and that disclosure of the unredacted documents would therefore constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the interviewees’ privacy.

Although the interest in protecting the privacy of the redacted information is substantial, we must still consider the importance of the public interest in its disclosure. For unless the invasion of privacy is 'clearly unwarranted,' the public interest in disclosure must prevail. Mere speculation about hypothetical public benefits cannot outweigh a demonstrably significant invasion of privacy. Accordingly, we need not address the question whether a 'derivative use' theory would ever justify release of information about private individuals. We are also unmoved by respondents’ asserted interest in ascertaining the veracity of the interview reports. There is not a scintilla of evidence, either in the documents themselves or elsewhere in the record, that tends to impugn the integrity of the reports. We generally accord Government records and official conduct a presumption of legitimacy...

To prevail in this case under Exemption 6, the Government must establish that the invasion of the interviewees' privacy would be 'clearly unwarranted...' On the record before us, we are satisfied that the proposed invasion of the serious privacy interest of the Haitian returnees is 'clearly unwarranted.' The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed."

Justice Vote: 0 Pro vs. 8 Con

  • Stevens, J. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined concurring opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Took no part in the decision making process of the case

The ACLU filed a brief as amicus curiae urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in an 8-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.