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U.S. Supreme Court

Department of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352 (1976)

Department of the Air Force v. Rose

No. 74-489

Argued October 8, 1975

Decided April 21, 1976

425 U.S. 352


Under the United States Air Force Academy's Honor Code, which is administered by a cadet committee, cadets pledge that they will not lie, steal, or cheat, or tolerate among their number anyone who does. If a cadet investigatory team finds that a hearing before an Honor Board concerning a suspected violation is warranted, the accused may call witnesses, and cadet observers attend. The Board, consisting of eight members, may adjudge guilt only by unanimous vote, but may, if at least six members concur, grant the guilty cadet "discretion," which returns him to his squadron in good standing. A cadet found guilty without discretion may resign, or request a hearing by a Board of officers or trial by court-martial. The Honor Board hearing is confidential, but the committee prepares a summary, which is posted on 40 squadron bulletin boards and distributed among Academy faculty and officials. In not-guilty and discretion cases, names are deleted. In guilty cases, names are not deleted, but posting is deferred until the cadet has left the Academy. Ethics Code violations, for less serious breaches, are handled more informally, though on a similarly confidential basis. Respondents, present or former student law review editors researching for an article, having been denied access to case summaries of honors and ethics hearings (with identifying data deleted), brought this suit to compel disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against the Department of the Air Force and certain Academy officers (hereinafter collectively the Agency). The District Court, without in camera inspection, granted the Agency's motion for summary judgment on the ground that the summaries were "matters . . . related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency," and thus exempted from mandatory disclosure under Exemption 2 of the FOIA. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that exemption inapplicable. The Agency had made the contention, which the District Court rejected, that the case summaries fell within Exemption 6 as constituting

"personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted

Page 425 U. S. 353

invasion of personal privacy."

The Court of Appeals, while disagreeing with the District Court's approach, did not hold that the Agency, without any prior court inspection, had to turn over the summaries to respondents with only the proper names removed, or that Exemption 6 covered all or any part of the summaries, but held that, because the Agency had not maintained its statutory burden in the District Court of sustaining its action by means of affidavits or testimony, further inquiry was required, and that the Agency had to produce the summaries for an in camera inspection, cooperating with the District Court in redacting the records so as to delete personal references and all other identifying information.


1. The limited statutory exemptions do not obscure the basic policy that disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant legislative objective of the FOIA. Pp. 425 U. S. 360-362.

2. Exemption 2 does not generally apply to matters, such as the summaries here involved, in which there is a genuine and important public interest. Pp. 425 U. S. 362-370.

(a) The phrasing of that exemption reflected congressional dissatisfaction with the "internal management" exemption of former § 3 of the Administrative Procedure Act, and was generally designed, as the Senate Report made clear, to delineate between, on the one hand, trivial matters and, on the other, more substantial matters in which the public might have a legitimate interest. Pp. 425 U. S. 362-367.

(b) The public has a substantial concern with the Academy's administration of discipline and procedures that affect the training of Air Force officers and their military careers. Pp. 425 U. S. 367-369.

3. Exemption 6 does not create a blanket exemption for personnel files. With respect to such files and "similar files," Congress enunciated a policy, to be judicially enforced, involving a balancing of public and private interests. Regardless of whether the documents whose disclosure is sought are in "personnel" or "similar" files, nondisclosure is not sanctioned unless there is a showing of a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, and redaction of documents to permit disclosure of nonexempt portions is appropriate under Exemption 6. Pp. 425 U. S. 370-376.

4. Even if "personnel files" were to be considered as wholly exempt from disclosure under Exemption 6 without regard to whether disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, the case summaries here were not in that category, although they constituted "similar files," relating as they

Page 425 U. S. 354

do to the discipline of cadets, and their disclosure implication similar privacy values. Pp. 425 U. S. 376-377.

5. The Court of Appeals did not err in ordering the Agency to produce the case summaries for the District Court's in camera examination, a procedure that represents "a workable compromise between individual rights and the preservation of public rights to [G]overnment information,'" which is the statutory goal of Exemption 6. Pp. 425 U. S. 378-381.

(a) The limitation in Exemption 6 to cases of "clearly unwarranted" invasions of privacy indicates that Congress did not intend a matter to be exempted from disclosure merely because it could not be guaranteed that disclosure would not trigger recollection of identity in any person whatever, and Congress vested the courts with the responsibility of determining de novo whether the exemption was properly invoked. Pp. 425 U. S. 378-380.

(b) Respondents' request for access to summaries "with personal references or other identifying information deleted" respected the confidentiality interests embodied in Exemption 6 and comported with the Academy's tradition of confidentiality. Pp. 425 U. S. 380-381.

495 F.2d 261, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J.,post, p. 425 U. S. 382, BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 425 U. S. 385, and REHNQUIST, J., post, p. 425 U. S. 389, filed dissenting opinions. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision, of the case.

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