502 U.S. 164 (1991), 90-747, United States Department of State v. Ray

Docket Nº:No. 90-747
Citation:502 U.S. 164, 112 S.Ct. 541, 116 L.Ed.2d 526, 60 U.S.L.W. 4047
Party Name:United States Department of State v. Ray
Case Date:December 16, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 164

502 U.S. 164 (1991)

112 S.Ct. 541, 116 L.Ed.2d 526, 60 U.S.L.W. 4047

United States Department of State



No. 90-747

United States Supreme Court

December 16, 1991

Argued Oct. 9, 1991




In 1981, the Secretary of State obtained an assurance from the Haitian Government that it would not subject to prosecution for illegal departure undocumented Haitians interdicted by the United States and returned to Haiti. Personnel of petitioner State Department monitored Haiti's compliance with the assurance by conducting interviews with a "representative sample" of unsuccessful emigrants, most of whom reported no harassment or prosecution after their return. During immigration proceedings, respondents, undocumented Haitian nationals and their attorney, sought to prove that the nationals were entitled to political asylum in the United States because Haitians who immigrate illegally face a well-founded fear of prosecution upon returning home. To disprove the Government's assertion that returnees have not been prosecuted, respondents made Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for copies of petitioner's interview reports and received, inter alia, 17 documents from which the names and other identifying information had been redacted. The District Court ordered petitioner to produce the redacted material, finding that the deletions were not authorized by FOIA Exemption 6, which exempts from disclosure

personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. It found that the returnees' significant privacy interests -- stemming from respondents' intent to use the redacted information to contact and question the returnees and from the Federal Government's promise to maintain their confidentiality -- were outweighed by the public interest in learning whether the Government is adequately monitoring Haiti's compliance with its obligation and is honest when its officials opine that Haiti is adhering to its assurance. The court also concluded that the indirect benefit of giving respondents the means to locate and question returnees provided a public value requiring disclosure.

Held: Disclosure of the unredacted interview reports would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the returnees' privacy. Pp. 171-182.

Page 165

(a) In order to determine whether petitioner has met its burden of justifying the redaction, the individual's right of privacy must be balanced against the FOIA's basic policy of opening agency action to the light of public scrutiny. Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 372. Pp. 173-175.

(b) The privacy interest at stake in this case is more substantial than the Court of Appeals recognized. The invasion of privacy from summaries containing personal details about particular returnees, while de minimis when the returnees' identities are unknown, is significant when the information is linked to particular individuals. In addition, disclosure would publicly identify the returnees, possibly subjecting them or their families to embarrassment in their social and community relationships or to retaliatory action that might result from a renewed interest in their aborted attempt to emigrate. The lower court also gave insufficient weight to the fact that the interviews were conducted pursuant to an assurance of confidentiality, since the returnees might otherwise have been unwilling to discuss private matters and since the risk of mistreatment gives this group an additional interest in assuring that their anonymity is maintained. Finally, respondents' intent to interview the returnees magnifies the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of their identities. Pp. 175-177.

(c) The public interest in knowing whether petitioner has adequately monitored Haiti's compliance with the assurance has been adequately served by disclosure of the [112 S.Ct. 543] redacted interview summaries, which reveal how many returnees were interviewed, when the interviews took place, the interviews' contents, and details about the returnees' status. The addition of the redacted information would shed no further light on petitioner's conduct of its obligation. Pp. 177-178.

(d) The question whether the "derivative use" of requested documents -- here, the hope that the information can be used to obtain additional information outside the Government files -- would ever justify release of information about private individuals need not be addressed, since there is nothing in the record to suggest that a second set of interviews would produce any additional relevant information. Nor is there a scintilla of evidence that tends to impugn the integrity of the interview reports, and, therefore, they should be accorded a presumption of legitimacy. Pp. 178-179.

908 F.2d 1549 (CA11 1990), reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SOUTER, JJ., joined, and in all but Part III of which SCALIA and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in

Page 166

which KENNEDY, J., joined, post, p. 179. THOMAS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Department of State produced 25 documents containing information about Haitian nationals who had attempted to emigrate illegally to the United States and were involuntarily returned to Haiti. Names of individual Haitians had been deleted from 17 of the documents. The question presented is whether these deletions were authorized by FOIA Exemption 6, which provides that FOIA 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.

5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6).


Haiti is a densely populated nation located about 500 nautical miles southeast of Florida on the western third of the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola. Prior to 1981, its history of severe economic depression and dictatorial government

Page 167

motivated large numbers of its citizens to emigrate to Florida without obtaining the permission of either the Haitian government or the government of the United States. A small number of those undocumented aliens were eligible for asylum as political refugees,[1] but almost all of them were subject to deportation if identified and apprehended.

[112 S.Ct. 544] In response to this burgeoning "illegal migration by sea of large numbers of undocumented aliens" from Haiti and other countries, President Reagan ordered the Coast Guard and the Secretary of State to intercept vessels carrying undocumented aliens and, except for passengers who qualified for refugee status, to return them to their point of origin. See Presidential Proclamation No. 4865 of Sept. 29, 1981, 46 Fed.Reg. 48107 (1981); Exec.Order No. 12324, 46 Fed.Reg. 48109 (1981). The President also directed the Secretary of State to enter into

cooperative arrangements with appropriate foreign governments for the purpose of preventing illegal migration to the United States by sea.

Exec.Order No. 12324, 46 Fed.Reg., at 48109. Following this directive, the Secretary of State obtained an assurance from the Haitian government that interdicted Haitians would "not be subject to

Page 168

prosecution for illegal departure." See Agreement on Migrants -- Interdiction, Sept. 23, 1981, United States-Haiti, 33 U.S.T. 3559, 3560, T.I.A.S. No. 10241. In order to monitor compliance with that assurance, State Department personnel conducted confidential interviews with a "representative sample" of unsuccessful emigrants about six months after their involuntary return. All but one or two of the emigrants reported that they had not been harassed or prosecuted since their return to Haiti.

The respondents in this case are a Florida lawyer who represents undocumented Haitian nationals seeking political asylum in the United States and three of his clients. In immigration proceedings, respondents are attempting to prove that Haitians who immigrated illegally will face a well-founded fear of persecution if they return to their homeland, and therefore are refugees entitled to asylum in this country. Relying in part on the evidence in the reports of the interviews with former passengers on vessels interdicted by the Coast Guard, the Government has taken the position in those proceedings that respondents' fear of persecution is not well founded.

In order to test the accuracy of the Government's assertion that undocumented Haitian nationals have not been persecuted upon their return to Haiti, respondents made a series of FOIA requests to three Government agencies for copies of reports of the interviews by State Department personnel with persons who had been involuntarily returned to Haiti. Insofar as relevant to the question before us, the net result of these requests was the production by the State Department of 25 documents, containing approximately 96 pages, which describe a number of interviews with specific returnees and summarize the information that had been obtained during successive periods.[2] Thus, for example, a summary

Page 169

prepared in March, 1985, reported that, since the follow-up program had begun 3 1/2 years earlier, U.S. embassy officials in Haiti had interviewed 812 returnees, 22.83 percent of the total migrant interdictee population.[3] During that time, the report continued,

only two interdictees have mentioned a threat or mistreatment by the authorities. In one case, the claim was unverifiable, as there were no witnesses present; in the second case, higher authorities intervened...

To continue reading