Santa Clara County had argued the data was protected critical infrastructure information – a designation found in federal law after Sept. 11 to protect information submitted to the federal government that might affect security.
But the appeals court found the federal law did not apply in this case because the county had submitted, rather than received, the information. The federal protections are designed to stop the federal government from disclosing the information once it is received or to stop other state governments from releasing the information. The federal law does not stop the originator of the information – here Santa Clara County – from disclosing it.
The court then weighed the public interest in disclosing the information against the public interest in non-disclosure.
The court said the public interest was served in disclosing the mapping data because disclosure would contribute to a “comparison of property tax assessments, issuance of permits, treatment of tax delinquent properties, equitable deployment of public services, issuance of zoning variances.”
Santa Clara argued the county had a financial interest in not allowing disclosure and security concerns. The court did not agree with either.
“Furthermore, the trial court observed, ‘it does not appear this has been an overriding concern to County, as shown by the dissemination of the GIS basemap to others, albeit relying on a form of non-disclosure agreement,’” Justice Richard McAdams wrote for the unanimous three judge panel.
“The County sold the GIS basemap to 18 purchasers, including three private entities. In the trial court’s view: ‘If the security issue were of greater importance, one would think there would be no dissemination of the GIS basemap whatever.’ We see no reasoned basis for overturning that inference,” McAdams continued.
The county also argued the map was protected by copyright laws, but the court ruled it was not.
Peter Scheer, the CFAC director, wrote on the organization’s Web site: “The Santa Clara decision has potentially far-reaching implications. As governments at all levels increasingly maintain records in digital form, legal issues concerning proprietary rights in, and control over, government databases are front and center in freedom of information disputes. Moreover, the Court of Appeal’s reasoning on the county’s Homeland Security and copyright claims is not necessarily limited to the Santa Clara County parcel base map. It could also apply to virtually any government-created databases, at the local level and statewide, in California and in other states.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the CFAC.