February 5, 2009 | By Marcia Hofmann

Court Orders County to Release Geographic Mapping Data

A California appeals court issued a good decision [PDF] this afternoon in County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court of Santa Clara Country, a case raising unusual open government, homeland security, and copyright questions.

In this case, the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC) sued Santa Clara County under the California Public Records Act for a copy of the county's geographic information system basemap, which shows parcel boundaries, addresses, and other property data. Even though the county sells the basemap to customers for a stiff fee, it refused to provide the information in response to CFAC's request.

The county argued that it didn't have to release the basemap under the state public records law because the information 1.) had been turned over to the federal government and was therefore protected by the federal Critical Infrastructure Information Act; 2.) was exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act's general "catchall" provision; and 3.) was protected by copyright, so the county could license the basemap and impose restrictions on end users.

In 2007, a California superior court ordered [PDF] Santa Clara County to provide CFAC the basemap at the county's expense, and the county appealed. We joined the National Security Archive and Center for Democracy and Technology to file an amicus brief supporting CFAC, which you can read here [PDF].

In today's opinion, the appeals court rejected all of Santa Clara County's arguments and found that the basemap is a public record freely available to anyone who requests it—a victory not just for CFAC, but for everyone who believes the public has a right to government data. The superior court will now consider whether the county may charge processing fees beyond the cost of reproducing the basemap.

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