JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has accumulated and maintains criminal identification records, sometimes referred to as "rap sheets," on over 24 million persons. The question presented by this case is whether the disclosure of the contents of such a file to a third party "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" within the meaning of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U. S. C. § 552(b)(7)(C) (1982 ed., Supp. V).
In 1924 Congress appropriated funds to enable the Department of Justice (Department) to establish a program to collect and preserve fingerprints and other criminal identification records. 43 Stat. 217. That statute authorized the Department to exchange such information with "officials of States, cities and other institutions." Ibid. Six years later Congress created the FBI's identification division, and gave it responsibility for "acquiring, collecting, classifying, and preserving criminal identification and other crime records and the exchanging of said criminal identification records with the duly authorized officials of governmental agencies,
The local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation that exchange rap-sheet data with the FBI do so on a voluntary basis. The principal use of the information is to assist in the detection and prosecution of offenders; it is also used by courts and corrections officials in connection with sentencing and parole decisions. As a matter of executive policy, the Department has generally treated rap sheets as confidential and, with certain exceptions, has restricted their use to governmental purposes. Consistent with the Department's basic policy of treating these records as confidential, Congress in 1957 amended the basic statute to provide that the FBI's exchange of rap-sheet information with any other agency is subject to cancellation "if dissemination is made outside the receiving departments or related agencies." 71 Stat. 61; see 28 U. S. C. § 534(b).
As a matter of Department policy, the FBI has made two exceptions to its general practice of prohibiting unofficial access to rap sheets. First, it allows the subject of a rap sheet to obtain a copy, see 28 CFR §§ 16.30-16.34 (1988); and second, it occasionally allows rap sheets to be used in the preparation of press releases and publicity designed to assist in the apprehension of wanted persons or fugitives. See § 20.33(a)(4).
Although much rap-sheet information is a matter of public record, the availability and dissemination of the actual rap sheet to the public is limited. Arrests, indictments, convictions, and sentences are public events that are usually documented in court records. In addition, if a person's entire criminal history transpired in a single jurisdiction, all of the contents of his or her rap sheet may be available upon request in that jurisdiction. That possibility, however, is present in only three States.
The statute known as the FOIA is actually a part of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Section 3 of the APA as enacted in 1946 gave agencies broad discretion concerning the publication of governmental records.
Congress exempted nine categories of documents from the FOIA's broad disclosure requirements. Three of those exemptions are arguably relevant to this case. Exemption 3 applies to documents that are specifically exempted from disclosure by another statute. § 552(b)(3). Exemption 6 protects "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." § 552(b)(6).
Exemption 7(C)'s privacy language is broader than the comparable language in Exemption 6 in two respects. First, whereas Exemption 6 requires that the invasion of privacy be "clearly unwarranted," the adverb "clearly" is omitted from Exemption 7(C). This omission is the product of a 1974 amendment adopted in response to concerns expressed by the President.
This case arises out of requests made by a CBS news correspondent and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (respondents) for information concerning the criminal records of four members of the Medico family. The Pennsylvania Crime Commission had identified the family's company, Medico Industries, as a legitimate business dominated by organized crime figures. Moreover, the company allegedly had obtained a number of defense contracts as a result of an improper arrangement with a corrupt Congressman.
The FOIA requests sought disclosure of any arrests, indictments, acquittals, convictions, and sentences of any of the four Medicos. Although the FBI originally denied the requests, it provided the requested data concerning three of the Medicos after their deaths. In their complaint in the District Court, respondents sought the rap sheet for the fourth, Charles Medico (Medico), insofar as it contained "matters of public record." App. 33.
The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Respondents urged that any information regarding "a record of bribery, embezzlement or other financial crime" would potentially be a matter of special public interest. Id., at 97. In answer to that argument, the Department advised respondents and the District Court that it had no record of any financial crimes concerning Medico, but the Department continued to refuse to confirm or deny whether it had any information concerning nonfinancial crimes. Thus, the issue was narrowed to Medico's nonfinancial-crime history insofar as it is a matter of public record.
The District Court granted the Department's motion for summary judgment, relying on three separate grounds. First, it concluded that 28 U. S. C. § 534, the statute that authorizes the exchange of rap-sheet information with other official agencies, also prohibits the release of such information to members of the public, and therefore that Exemption 3
The Court of Appeals reversed. 259 U. S. App. D. C. 426, 816 F.2d 730 (1987). It held that an individual's privacy interest in criminal-history information that is a matter of public record was minimal at best. Noting the absence of any statutory standards by which to judge the public interest in disclosure, the Court of Appeals concluded that it should be bound by the state and local determinations that such information should be made available to the general public. Accordingly, it held that Exemptions 6 and 7(C) were inapplicable. It also agreed with respondents that Exemption 3 did not apply because 28 U. S. C. § 534 did not qualify as a statute "specifically" exempting rap sheets from disclosure.
In response to rehearing petitions advising the court that, contrary to its original understanding, most States had adopted policies of refusing to provide members of the public with criminal-history summaries, the Court of Appeals modified its holding. 265 U. S. App. D. C. 365, 831 F.2d 1124 (1987). With regard to the public interest side of the balance, the court now recognized that it could not rely upon state policies of disclosure. However, it adhered to its view that federal judges are not in a position to make "idiosyncratic" evaluations of the public interest in particular disclosures, see 259 U. S. App. D. C., at 437, 816 F. 2d, at 741; instead, it directed district courts to consider "the general disclosure policies of the statute." 265 U. S. App. D. C., at 367, 831 F. 2d, at 1126. With regard to the privacy interest in nondisclosure of rap sheets, the court told the District Court "only to make a factual determination in these kinds of
Although he had concurred in the Court of Appeals' original disposition, Judge Starr dissented, expressing disagreement with the majority on three points. First, he rejected the argument that there is no privacy interest in "cumulative, indexed, computerized" data simply because the underlying information is on record at local courthouses or police stations:
Second, Judge Starr concluded that the statute required the District Court to make a separate evaluation of the public interest in disclosure depending upon the kind of use that would be made of the information and the identity of the subject:
Finally, he questioned the feasibility of requiring the Department to determine the availability of the requested material at its source, and expressed concern that the majority's approach departed from the original purpose of the FOIA and threatened to convert the Federal Government into a clearinghouse for personal information that had been collected about millions of persons under a variety of different situations:
Exemption 7(C) requires us to balance the privacy interest in maintaining, as the Government puts it, the "practical obscurity" of the rap sheets against the public interest in their release.
The preliminary question is whether Medico's interest in the nondisclosure of any rap sheet the FBI might have on him is the sort of "personal privacy" interest that Congress intended Exemption 7(C) to protect.
To begin with, both the common law and the literal understandings of privacy encompass the individual's control of information concerning his or her person. In an organized society, there are few facts that are not at one time or another divulged to another.
This conclusion is supported by the web of federal statutory and regulatory provisions that limits the disclosure of
Other portions of the FOIA itself bolster the conclusion that disclosure of records regarding private citizens, identifiable by name, is not what the framers of the FOIA had in mind. Specifically, the FOIA provides that "[t]o the extent required to prevent a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, an agency may delete identifying details when it makes available or publishes an opinion, statement of policy, interpretation, or staff manual or instruction." 5 U. S. C. § 552(a)(2). Additionally, the FOIA assures that "[a]ny reasonably segregable portion of a record shall be provided to any person requesting such record after deletion of the portions which are exempt under [§ (b)]." 5 U. S. C.
Also supporting our conclusion that a strong privacy interest inheres in the nondisclosure of compiled computerized information is the Privacy Act of 1974, codified at 5 U. S. C. § 552a (1982 ed. and Supp. V). The Privacy Act was passed largely out of concern over "the impact of computer data banks on individual privacy." H. R. Rep. No. 93-1416, p. 7 (1974). The Privacy Act provides generally that "[n]o agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records . . . except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains." 5 U. S. C. § 552a(b) (1982 ed., Supp. V). Although the Privacy Act contains a variety of exceptions
Given this level of federal concern over centralized data bases, the fact that most States deny the general public access to their criminal-history summaries should not be surprising. As we have pointed out, see supra, at 753, and n. 2, in 47 States nonconviction data from criminal-history summaries are not available at all, and even conviction data are "generally unavailable to the public." See n. 2, supra. State policies, of course, do not determine the meaning of a federal statute, but they provide evidence that the law enforcement profession generally assumes — as has the Department of Justice — that individual subjects have a significant privacy interest in their criminal histories. It is reasonable to presume that Congress legislated with an understanding of this professional point of view.
In addition to the common-law and dictionary understandings, the basic difference between scattered bits of criminal history and a federal compilation, federal statutory provisions, and state policies, our cases have also recognized the privacy interest inherent in the nondisclosure of certain information even where the information may have been at one time public. Most apposite for present purposes is our decision in Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352 (1976). New York University law students sought Air Force Academy Honor and Ethics Code case summaries for a law review project on military discipline. The Academy had already publicly posted these summaries on 40 squadron bulletin boards, usually with identifying names redacted (names were posted for cadets who were found guilty and who left the Academy), and with instructions that cadets should read
See also id., at 387-388 (BLACKMUN, J., dissenting); id., at 389-390 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting). In this passage we doubly stressed the importance of the privacy interest implicated by disclosure of the case summaries. First: We praised the Academy's tradition of protecting personal privacy through redaction of names from the case summaries. But even with names redacted, subjects of such summaries can often be identified through other, disclosed information. So, second: Even though the summaries, with only names redacted, had once been public, we recognized the potential invasion of privacy through later recognition of identifying details, and approved the Court of Appeals' rule permitting the District Court to delete "other identifying information" in order to safeguard this privacy interest. If a cadet has a privacy interest in past discipline that was once public but may have been "wholly forgotten," the ordinary citizen surely has a similar interest in the aspects of his or her criminal history that may have been wholly forgotten.
We have also recognized the privacy interest in keeping personal facts away from the public eye. In Whalen v. Roe,
In sum, the fact that "an event is not wholly `private' does not mean that an individual has no interests in limiting disclosure or dissemination of the information." Rehnquist, Is an Expanded Right of Privacy Consistent with Fair and Effective Law Enforcement?, Nelson Timothy Stephens Lectures, University of Kansas Law School, pt. 1, p. 13 (Sept. 26-27,
Exemption 7(C), by its terms, permits an agency to withhold a document only when revelation "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." We must next address what factors might warrant an invasion of the interest described in Part IV, supra.
Our previous decisions establish that whether an invasion of privacy is warranted cannot turn on the purposes for which the request for information is made. Except for cases in which the objection to disclosure is based on a claim of privilege and the person requesting disclosure is the party protected by the privilege, the identity of the requesting party has no bearing on the merits of his or her FOIA request. Thus, although the subject of a presentence report can waive a privilege that might defeat a third party's access to that report, United States Department of Justice v. Julian, 486 U.S. 1, 13-14 (1988), and although the FBI's policy of granting the subject of a rap sheet access to his own criminal history is consistent with its policy of denying access to all other members of the general public, see supra, at 752, the rights of the two press respondents in this case are no different from those that might be asserted by any other third party, such as a neighbor or prospective employer. As we have repeatedly stated, Congress "clearly intended" the FOIA "to give any member of the public as much right to disclosure as one with a special interest [in a particular document]." NLRB v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 421 U.S. 132, 149 (1975); see NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 221 (1978); FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615 (1982). As Professor
Thus whether disclosure of a private document under Exemption 7(C) is warranted must turn on the nature of the requested document and its relationship to "the basic purpose of the Freedom of Information Act `to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny.' " Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U. S., at 372, rather than on the particular purpose for which the document is being requested. In our leading case on the FOIA, we declared that the Act was designed to create a broad right of access to "official information." EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73, 80 (1973).
This basic policy of "full agency disclosure unless information is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language,' " Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U. S., at 360-361 (quoting S. Rep. No. 813, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., 3 (1965)), indeed focuses on the citizens' right to be informed about "what their government is up to." Official information that sheds light on an agency's performance of its statutory duties falls squarely within that statutory purpose. That purpose, however, is not fostered by disclosure of information about private citizens that is accumulated in various governmental files but that reveals little or nothing about an agency's own conduct. In this case — and presumably in the typical case in which one private citizen is seeking information about another — the requester does not intend to discover anything about the conduct of the agency that has possession of the requested records. Indeed, response to this request would not shed any light on the conduct of any Government agency or official.
The point is illustrated by our decision in Rose, supra. As discussed earlier, we held that the FOIA required the United States Air Force to honor a request for in camera submission of disciplinary-hearing summaries maintained in the Academy's Honors and Ethics Code reading files. The summaries obviously contained information that would explain how the disciplinary procedures actually functioned and therefore were an appropriate subject of a FOIA request. All parties, however, agreed that the files should be redacted by deleting information that would identify the particular cadets to whom the summaries related. The deletions were unquestionably appropriate because the names of the particular cadets were irrelevant to the inquiry into the way the Air Force Academy administered its Honor Code; leaving the identifying material in the summaries would therefore have been a "clearly unwarranted"
Respondents argue that there is a twofold public interest in learning about Medico's past arrests or convictions: He allegedly had improper dealings with a corrupt Congressman, and he is an officer of a corporation with defense contracts. But if Medico has, in fact, been arrested or convicted of certain crimes, that information would neither aggravate nor mitigate his allegedly improper relationship with the Congressman; more specifically, it would tell us nothing directly about the character of the Congressman's behavior. Nor would it tell us anything about the conduct of the Department of Defense (DOD) in awarding one or more contracts to the Medico Company. Arguably a FOIA request to the DOD for records relating to those contracts, or for documents describing the agency's procedures, if any, for determining whether officers of a prospective contractor have criminal records, would constitute an appropriate request for "official information." Conceivably Medico's rap sheet would provide details to include in a news story, but, in itself, this is not the kind of public interest for which Congress enacted the FOIA. In other words, although there is undoubtedly some public interest in anyone's criminal history, especially if the history is in some way related to the subject's dealing with a public official or agency, the FOIA's central purpose is to ensure that the Government's activities be opened to the sharp eye of public scrutiny, not that information about private citizens that happens to be in the warehouse of the Government be so disclosed. Thus, it should come as no surprise that in none of our cases construing the FOIA have we found it appropriate
What we have said should make clear that the public interest in the release of any rap sheet on Medico that may exist is not the type of interest protected by the FOIA. Medico may or may not be one of the 24 million persons for whom the FBI has a rap sheet. If respondents are entitled to have the FBI tell them what it knows about Medico's criminal history, any other member of the public is entitled to the same disclosure — whether for writing a news story, for deciding whether to employ Medico, to rent a house to him, to extend credit to him, or simply to confirm or deny a suspicion. There is, unquestionably, some public interest in providing interested citizens with answers to their questions about Medico. But that interest falls outside the ambit of the public interest that the FOIA was enacted to serve.
Finally, we note that Congress has provided that the standard fees for production of documents under the FOIA shall be waived or reduced "if disclosure of the information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester." 5 U. S. C. § 552(a)(4)(A)(iii) (1982 ed., Supp. V). Although such a provision obviously implies that there will be requests that do not meet such a "public interest" standard, we think it relevant to today's inquiry regarding the public interest in release of rap sheets on private citizens that Congress once again expressed the core purpose of the FOIA as "contribut[ing] significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government."
Both the general requirement that a court "shall determine the matter de novo" and the specific reference to an "unwarranted" invasion of privacy in Exemption 7(C) indicate that a court must balance the public interest in disclosure against the interest Congress intended the Exemption to protect. Although both sides agree that such a balance must be undertaken, how such a balance should be done is in dispute. The Court of Appeals majority expressed concern about assigning federal judges the task of striking a proper case-by-case, or ad hoc, balance between individual privacy interests and the public interest in the disclosure of criminal-history information without providing those judges standards to assist in performing that task. Our cases provide support for the proposition that categorical decisions may be appropriate and individual circumstances disregarded when a case fits into a genus in which the balance characteristically tips in one direction. The point is well illustrated by both the majority and dissenting opinions in NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214 (1978).
In Robbins, the majority held that Exemption 7(A), which protects from disclosure law enforcement records or information that "could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings," applied to statements of witnesses whom the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) intended to call at an unfair-labor-practice hearing. Although we noted that the language of Exemptions 7(B), (C), and (D) seems to contemplate a case-by-case showing "that the factors made relevant by the statute are present in each distinct situation," id., at 223; see id., at 234, we concluded that Exemption 7(A) "appears to contemplate that certain generic determinations might be made." Id., at 224. Thus, our ruling encompassed the entire category of NLRB witness statements, and a concurring opinion pointed out that the category embraced enforcement proceedings by other agencies
Second: Although Robbins noted that Exemption 7(C) speaks of "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" (emphasis added), we do not think that the Exemption's use of the singular mandates ad hoc balancing. The Exemption in full provides: "This section does not apply to matters that are — records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information . . . could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal
Third: In FTC v. Grolier Inc., 462 U.S. 19 (1983), we also supported categorical balancing. Respondent sought FTC documents concerning an investigation of a subsidiary. At issue were seven documents that would normally be exempt from disclosure under Exemption 5, which protects "inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency." 5 U. S. C. § 552(b)(5). The Court of Appeals held that four of the documents "could not be withheld on the basis of the work-product rule unless the Commission could show that `litigation related to the terminated action exists or potentially exists.' " 462 U. S., at 22. We reversed, concluding that even if in some instances civil-discovery rules would permit such disclosure, "[s]uch materials are . . . not `routinely' or `normally' available to parties in litigation and hence are exempt under Exemption 5." Id., at 27. We added that "[t]his result, by establishing a discrete category of exempt information, implements the congressional intent to provide `workable' rules. . . . Only by construing the Exemption to provide a categorical rule can the Act's purpose of expediting disclosure by means of workable rules be furthered." Id., at 27-28 (emphasis added).
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE BLACKMUN, with whom JUSTICE BRENNAN joins, concurring in the judgment.
I concur in the result the Court reaches in this case, but I cannot follow the route the Court takes to reach that result. In other words, the Court's use of "categorical balancing" under Exemption 7(C), I think, is not basically sound. Such a bright-line rule obviously has its appeal, but I wonder whether it would not run aground on occasion, such as in a situation where a rap sheet discloses a congressional candidate's conviction of tax fraud five years before. Surely, the FBI's disclosure of that information could not "reasonably be expected" to constitute an invasion of personal privacy, much less an unwarranted invasion, inasmuch as the candidate relinquished any interest in preventing the dissemination of this information when he chose to run for Congress.
It might be possible to mount a substantial argument in favor of interpreting Exemption 3 and 28 U. S. C. § 534 as exempting all rap-sheet information from the FOIA, especially in the light of the presence of the three post-FOIA, enactments the Court mentions, ante, at 753. But the federal parties before this Court have abandoned the Exemption 3 issue they presented to the Court of Appeals and lost, and it perhaps would be inappropriate for us to pursue an inquiry along this line in the present case.
For these reasons, I would not adopt the Court's bright-line approach but would leave the door open for the disclosure of rap-sheet information in some circumstances. Nonetheless, even a more flexible balancing approach would still require reversing the Court of Appeals in this case. I, therefore, concur in the judgment, but do not join the Court's opinion.
"Conviction data, although generally unavailable to the public, is often available to governmental non-criminal justice agencies and even private employers. In general, conviction data is far more available outside the criminal justice system than is nonconviction data. By contrast, in all 47 states nonconviction data cannot be disclosed at all for non-criminal justice purposes, or may be disclosed only in narrowly defined circumstances, for specified purposes." Brief for Search Group, Inc., et al. as amici curiae 40 (footnotes omitted); see also Brief for Petitioner 27, n. 13.
A number of States, while requiring disclosure of police blotters and event-based information, deny the public access to personal arrest data such as rap sheets. See Houston Chronicle Publishing Co. v. Houston, 531 S.W.2d 177 (Tex. Civ. App. 1975), aff'd, 536 S.W.2d 559 (Tex. 1976); Stephens v. Van Arsdale, 227 Kan. 676, 608 P.2d 972 (1980).
"Except with respect to the records made available under paragraphs (1) and (2) of this subsection, each agency, upon any request for records which (A) reasonably describes such records and (B) is made in accordance with published rules stating the time, place, fees (if any), and procedures to be followed, shall make the records promptly available to any person."
"(B) On complaint, the district court . . . has jurisdiction to enjoin the agency from withholding agency records and to order the production of any agency records improperly withheld from the complainant. In such a case the court shall determine the matter de novo, and may examine the contents of such agency records in camera to determine whether such records or any part thereof shall be withheld under any of the exemptions set forth in subsection (b) of this section, and the burden is on the agency to sustain its action."
"To the extent required to prevent a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, an agency may delete identifying details when it makes available or publishes an opinion, statement of policy, interpretation, or staff manual or instruction." § 552(a)(2).
"This Court is satisfied that pursuant to the above section, the information acquired and collected by the Attorney General may be released only to the agencies, organizations or states set forth in that section, and may not be released to the general public. Thus, the information is `[s]pecifically exempted from disclosure by statute [28 U. S. C. § 534]' which `requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue.' The Court therefore concludes that if the defendants have collected and maintained a rap sheet related to Charles Medico, that rap sheet is exempt from disclosure pursuant to Exemption 3." App. to Pet. for Cert. 55a.