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U.S. Supreme Court

Department of State v. Washington Post Co., 456 U.S. 595 (1982)

United States Department of State v. Washington Post Co.

No. 81-535

Argued March 31, 1982

Decided May 17, 1982

456 U.S. 595


Respondent filed a request with petitioner United States Department of State under the Freedom of Information Act for documents indicating whether certain Iranian nationals held valid United States passports. The State Department denied the request on the ground that the requested information was exempt from disclosure under Exemption 6 of the Act, which provides that the Act's disclosure requirements do not apply to "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Pending an ultimately unsuccessful administrative appeal, respondent brought an action in Federal District Court to enjoin petitioners from withholding the requested documents, and the court granted summary judgment for respondent. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that, because the citizenship status of the individuals in question was less intimate than information normally contained in personnel and medical files, it was not contained in "similar files" within the meaning of Exemption 6, and that therefore there was no need to consider whether disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Held: The citizenship information sought by respondent satisfies the "similar files" requirement of Exemption 6, and hence the State Department's denial of the request should have been sustained upon a showing that release of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Although Exemption 6's language sheds little light on what Congress meant by "similar files," the legislative history indicates that Congress did not mean to limit Exemption 6 to a narrow class of files containing only a discrete kind of personal information, but that "similar files" was to have a broad, rather than a narrow, meaning. Exemption 6's protection is not determined merely by the nature of the file containing the requested information, and its protection is not lost merely because an agency stores information about an individual in records other than "personnel" or "medical" files. Pp. 456 U. S. 599-603.

207 U.S.App.D.C. 372, 647 F.2d 197, reversed and remanded.

Page 456 U. S. 596

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., concurred in the judgment.

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