Electronic geographic information system (GIS) mapping data maintained by California governments is public under the state records law and therefore cannot carry the high price tag of a software licensing fee, the state’s highest court ruled Monday.
The California Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Sierra Club v. County of Orange means that the Sierra Club, which has been seeking Orange County’s basic set of land data since 2007, will have to pay only the actual cost of duplication to obtain the information in GIS format, which allows for sophisticated electronic analysis.
The ruling, which overturns a 2011 appellate decision, also sets a precedent that will make access to government data affordable for reporters, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California-based First Amendment Coalition. Local governments use GIS technology to organize troves of data about land parcels, including information related to property assessment and taxes. When journalists get access to these digital databases, they can use them to look for patterns that might indicate corruption or government incompetence, or to create graphics to accompany news articles, Scheer said.
“It’s a case that has potentially broad ramifications for access to data, certainly in California and possibly elsewhere,” Scheer said. “I think journalists everywhere have begun to appreciate the importance of access to data,” he added.
The California Public Records Act provides an exemption for computer software, which governments are allowed to license for a fee. Justice Goodwin Liu wrote in the decision that while it was unclear whether this exemption covered GIS data, the court must err on the Sierra Club's side because Article I, Section 3 of the state Constitution requires that any law “shall be broadly construed if it furthers the people‘s right of access, and narrowly construed if it limits the right of access.”
“To the extent that the term ‘computer mapping system’ is ambiguous, the constitutional canon requires us to interpret it in a way that maximizes the public‘s access to information ‘unless the Legislature has expressly provided to the contrary,’” Liu wrote , quoting from an earlier decision by a California appellate court.
Liu distinguished between GIS mapping software and GIS-formatted databases. GIS software, the court ruled, is covered by a public records exemption, so governments can charge a licensing fee for it. But no such fees can apply to GIS-formatted data, which are public records.
The rule that judges must err on the side of transparency became part of the California constitution in 2004, when voters approved Proposition 59 in a popular referendum. Scheer said that prior to the Sierra Club decision, he was not aware of any California Supreme Court case in which Proposition 59 proved decisive.
Howard Sutter, a spokesman for the County Executive Office, said that the county is reviewing the decision but declined to comment further.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to resolve the case in favor of the Sierra Club.
Related Reporters Committee resources: