Are County GIS Data Subject to State Open Records Law?

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the Wisconsin Land Information Association’s regional meeting on June 5th in Wausau, WI will focus on data policy issues, including public access to government geodata.  One of the invited speakers, Bruce Joffe of GIS Consultants, will review last year’s State of California Superior Court’s decision California First Amendment Coalition v. Santa Clara County, which directed the County to provide its parcel basemap data for the cost of duplication, as required by the California Public Records Act. Prior to this suit, Santa Clara County charged over $100,000 for its public data. This case caused a ripple effect, impacting county geodata policy throughout California.  Bruce also will discuss the subsequent case in California’s 6th Appeallate Court of Appeals, which raised more questions, including are GIS basemap data  protected under the Critical Infrastructure Information Act of 2002?

The California First Amendment Coalition summarized the original case as follows:

In a lawsuit filed by the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), the Superior Court for Santa Clara County affirmed that the basemap, which is the foundation for the county’s Geographic Information System, or GIS, is a public record to which the county can no longer limit access to just a small number of  purchasers willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fees. (The case is CFAC v. Santa Clara County, No. 1-06-CV-072630.)

GIS technology provides a 3-D display, on maps, of information in a relational database. In effect, it allows a visual depiction, with precise locations, of the results of statistical analyses. Think Google Earth but with a local focus and specialized data. Used together with other publicly available data, the basemap allows citizens to monitor their local government on matters ranging from property tax assessments to zoning variances to street repairs.

The basemap will also enable journalists to do reporting that would not otherwise be possible. For example, reporters and bloggers could write stories that assess whether poor neighborhoods  are being shortchanged for road repairs. Data on crime statistics, census information, political party affiliations, campaign contributions, environmental hazards and school test score results could be analyzed to spot trends and to test the validity of government policy assumptions and prescriptions. …

In a 27-page decision, Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg rejected the county’s arguments that it could withhold the GIS basemap files because of their claimed status as computer software, and because the files allegedly contain “trade secrets” protected from disclosure under state and federal law. The court concluded the basemap consisted of data, not software. And it found that the county, by selling the basemap to private entities, had waived any trade secret protection to which the records otherwise might be entitled. …

The court found that federal copyright protection did not permit the county to deny a valid request under California’s Public Records Act. The court also turned aside the county’s attempt to avoid releasing the records by getting them designated  “Critical Infrastructure Information” (CII) by the federal Department of Homeland Security. The court noted that this designation was sought only after CFAC filed suit, and despite the county’s past sales of the GIS basemap to 15 purchasers, five of them private companies.

The court said that, while some of the data in the basemap–relating to the location of easements for pipelines carrying water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir–might possibly qualify for the CII designation, the county had not met its burden of withholding the entire basemap on that basis. CFAC, while expressing doubt about the sensitivity of the information about the Hetch-Hetchy water easements, said in its briefs that it would be willing to accept the basemap with the pipeline information stripped out, if necessary.

Only 13 of California’s 58 counties currently limit access to their GIS by charging substantially more than the cost of reproduction for access. Of these, Santa Clara’s fees are the highest–over $100,000 for purchase of the full basemap. Orange County observes a similar policy. Both Los Angeles and San Diego Counties recently lifted restriction and use fees for access to their GIS basemaps. … 

For the full text, visit:

Source: CFAC, May 22, 2008.

To date, seventy-eight GIS professionals and GIS organizations, such as the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (USGIS), have endorsed Bruce Joffe’s Amicus Brief, which will be released next week.

The complete text of the original court case:
The appeals court case brief:


For more information and comments on this topic, visit the following links:



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Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Santa Clara Court Case Moves Forward « GeoData Policy - January 29, 2009
  2. 2010 in review « GeoData Policy - January 2, 2011

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