Supreme Court rules against newspaper, for grocers in SNAP suit
The Supreme Court recently issued a ruling against an attempt by the Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, to obtain store-level data on products sold through the food stamp program, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
In a Freedom of Information Act request, the newspaper had asked the Agriculture Department to release the annual amounts taxpayers paid to more than 320,000 retailers participating in the food stamp program, but USDA declined on the grounds that the request was for confidential business information.
A lower court ruled in favor of the newspaper, and the Food Marketing Institute sued to stop the release.
In an analysis of the case, FMI said the case involved whether the store-level SNAP redemption data is “confidential” under the Freedom of Information Act’s Exemption 4, which protects from mandatory disclosure private parties’ “commercial or financial information” when that information, which the government happens to have in its possession, is “confidential.”
The Supreme Court’s opinion states, “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 privacy, the information is ‘confidential’ within the meaning of Exemption 4.” The court concluded that the store-level SNAP data qualifies as “confidential” under this standard, FMI noted.
FMI also noted that the opinion reverses a 1974 interpretation of that term, first articulated by the D.C. Circuit Court, that determined private information would not be deemed “confidential” unless its disclosure would cause “substantial competitive harm.”
USA Today, which, like the Argus Leader, is part of the Gannett chain of newspapers, said that the court “limited public and media access to government records by expanding a federal law’s definition of what can be deemed confidential.”
Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the 6-3 decision, with Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissenting.
FMI President and CEO Leslie Sarasin said, “We agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today that a 45-year-old interpretation of what constitutes ‘confidential commercial and financial information’ required re-examination.
“Our industry’s commitment to the shopper remains constant amidst seismic marketplace shifts. The nation’s grocery stores have long kept confidential the amount consumers spend at individual stores whether through payment by cash, credit, debit or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. This store-level sales data undoubtedly must be considered confidential because its release would provide an unfair advantage to competitors.”
National Grocers Association President and CEO Peter Larkin noted that his group had also participated in the case, and said, “NGA welcomes the Supreme Court’s decision that will protect store-level SNAP sales data from public disclosure. NGA has maintained that a retailer’s SNAP store data should remain private because its release would harm competition in the food retail industry. Knowing that their confidential business information will remain protected by the government, independent supermarkets will continue to be strong partners in the SNAP food delivery system, serving the millions of American families who rely on domestic food assistance.” ❖