FBI V. ABRAMSON, 456 U. S. 615 (1982)

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U.S. Supreme Court

FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615 (1982)

Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Abramson

No. 80-1735

Argued January 11, 1982

Decided May 24, 1982

456 U.S. 615


Respondent journalist filed a request with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for documents relating to the FBI's transmittal to the White House of information concerning individuals who had criticized the Presidential administration. The FBI denied the request under, inter alia, Exemption 7(C) of the FOIA, which exempts from disclosure "investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes" when the release of such records would "constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." After unsuccessful administrative appeals, respondent filed suit in Federal District Court to enjoin the FBI from withholding the requested documents. While the suit was pending, the FBI provided respondent with certain documents, and respondent then modified his request to seek only a certain cover letter from the FBI to the White House, along with the accompanying "name check" summaries containing information culled from FBI files on the individuals in question, and certain attached documents. The District Court granted the FBI's motion for a summary judgment with respect to material withheld pursuant to Exemption 7(C). The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, except for those documents attached to the "name check" summaries that may have been duplicates of FBI files, the FBI had failed to show that the documents were compiled for law enforcement purposes, and that, accordingly, Exemption 7(C) was unavailable even though disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Held: Information contained in records originally compiled for law enforcement purposes does not lose its Exemption 7 exemption where such information is reproduced or summarized in a new document prepared for other than law enforcement purposes, but continues to meet Exemption 7's threshold requirement of being compiled for law enforcement purposes. Pp. 456 U. S. 621-632.

(a) Although the Court of Appeals' construction of Exemption 7's threshold requirement as turning on the purpose for which the document sought to be withheld was prepared, not on the purpose for which the material included in the document was collected, is a plausible one on the face of the statute, it is not the only reasonable construction of the statutory language. The statutory language is reasonably construable to

Page 456 U. S. 616

protect that part of an otherwise nonexempt compilation that essentially reproduces and is substantially the equivalent of all or part of an earlier record made for law enforcement uses. This construction more accurately reflects Congress' intention, is more consistent with the Act's structure, and more fully serves its purposes. Pp. 456 U. S. 623-629.

(b) The legitimate interests in protecting information from disclosure under Exemption 7 are not satisfied by other exemptions, such as Exemption 6, which protects against unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, and Exemption 5, which protects from disclosure predecisional communications within an agency and other internal documents. The reasons for an exemption under Exemption 7 remain intact even though information in a law enforcement record is recompiled in another document for other than law enforcement purposes. Pp. 456 U. S. 629-630.

(c) The result in this case is consistent with the principle that FOIA exemptions are to be narrowly construed, since there is no request that Exemption 7 be expanded to agencies or material not envisioned by Congress. Pp. 456 U. S. 630-631.

(d) Congress' concern with possible misuse of governmental information for partisan political activity is not the equivalent of a mandate to release any information that might document such activity. Once it is established that information was compiled pursuant to a legitimate law enforcement investigation and that disclosure of such information would lead to one of the listed harms under Exemption 7, the information is exempt. Congress thus created a scheme of categorical exclusion and did not invite a judicial weighing of the benefits and evils of disclosure on a case-by-case basis. P. 456 U. S. 631.

212 U.S.App.D.C. 58, 658 F.2d 806, reversed and remanded.

WHITE J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 456 U. S. 632. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 456 U. S. 633.

Page 456 U. S. 617

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