A years-long legal fight ended June 24 when the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to prevent the release of store-level data related to the Supplemental National Assistance Program.
The Argus Leader, the Sioux Falls, S.D., newspaper that sought store-level SNAP data back in 2011, asserted the public has a right to know which companies are receiving reimbursement from the taxpayer-funded program. The Food Marketing Institute and the National Grocers Association protested that the release of such data would be detrimental to stores.
After hearing oral arguments April 22, the Supreme Court concluded that store-level data is confidential and exempt from Freedom of Information Act.
In the opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch recounted the testimony of witnesses for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as far as why the release of the information would be harmful.
“They explained that retailers use models of consumer behavior to help choose new store locations and to plan sales strategies,” Gorsuch said. “Competitors’ estimated sales volumes represent an important component of these models and can be time-consuming and expensive to generate. And a model’s accuracy and utility increase significantly if it includes a rival’s actual sales data rather than mere estimates.
“So disclosure of store-level SNAP data could create a windfall for competitors; Stores with high SNAP redemptions could see increased competition for SNAP customers from existing competitors, new market entrants could use SNAP data to determine where to build their stores, and SNAP-redemption data could be used to discern a rival retailer’s overall sales and develop strategies to win some of that business too,” Gorsuch said.
The dissenting opinion was delivered by Justice Stephen Breyer, who noted the whole point of FOIA is to give people access to information they couldn’t access otherwise — and thus the classification of information as confidential should not be automatic just because companies don’t normally release that data.
“ ... A tool used to probe the relationship between government and business should not be unavailable whenever government and business wish it so,” Breyer said. “And given the temptation, common across the private and public sectors, to regard as secret all information that need not be disclosed, I fear the majority’s reading will deprive the public of information for reasons no better than convenience, skittishness or bureaucratic inertia.”