The Town of Greenwich, Conn., must release its complete electronic system of aerial maps to an open records requester, the Connecticut Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in November requesting that the records be opened.
The electronically formatted maps, which citizen Stephen Whitaker requested for the first time in December 2001, are created using Geographic Information System technology that allows geographically referenced statistical data to be quickly and easily plotted onto aerial maps.
The town refused to give Whitaker electronic access to its GIS system, arguing that the records were exempt from disclosure because their release would compromise town safety and trade secrets. Whitaker sued and obtained rulings in favor of release from the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission in 2002 and the Connecticut Superior Court in 2004. Greenwich appealed to the Connecticut Appellate Court, but the Supreme Court stepped in and transferred the case onto its own docket before the intermediate appellate court could rule.
“We hope this decision has national implications for citizens who have come up with creative ways to use this type of public information, which was created and maintained at taxpayer expense,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish.
Writing for the court, Justice Christine S. Vertefeuille affirmed that the trade secret exemption to the state’s public records law does not protect the electronic GIS maps from disclosure. Because town maps continue to be available piecemeal and in paper format from other town departments, there is no “substantial element of secrecy” about the electronic GIS maps’ content that could justify their classification as a trade secret, she wrote.
The court also rejected Greenwich’s argument that the public safety exemption shields the GIS maps from public view. Greenwich’s trial court witnesses had testified that public safety would be jeopardized if the GIS data were released, but offered no concrete evidence of their assertions. Claimants of the public safety exemption must “provide more than conclusory language, generalized allegations, or mere arguments of counsel,” the court said.
In their friend-of-the-court brief, the Reporters Committee, SEJ and IRE said electronic access to GIS data is important to journalists. Journalists’ use “of GIS data obviates snail’s pace plotting of data by hand when government officials can call up sophisticated maps with a few computer key strokes,” the brief argued.
An appendix to the brief contained copies of news stories — many of which were contributed by SEJ and IRE members — that could not have been written without the benefit of GIS analysis. Journalists have used GIS data, for instance, to illustrate the incidence of high levels of lead in drinking water (The Washington Post), inefficient placement of fire stations (The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer), and racial segregation in schools (The Dallas Morning News).
The brief is available on the Reporters Committee’s Web site at: www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20041109-greenwich.pdf