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Reporters Committee argues map records should be released in electronic format

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and two other journalism groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Connecticut…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and two other journalism groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Connecticut Supreme Court this week in a dispute over the Town of Greenwich’s refusal to grant a Freedom of Information (FOI) requester access to public records in electronic format. Greenwich continues to release paper copies of the same public records.

The lawsuit began when Stephen Whitaker, a Connecticut citizen, used Connecticut’s freedom of information law to request copies of Greenwich’s Geographic Information System (GIS) records in electronic format. GIS records are mainly comprised of aerial maps and geographically referenced statistical data. With a computer and the appropriate software, users can quickly and easily overlay the electronically formatted statistics directly onto maps, revealing geographic trends that can shed light on the adequacy of government programs and performance.

The city denied Whitaker’s request, claiming that public access to these electronic records would hurt town security, trade secrets, and information technology systems security. Whitaker sued.

The friend-of-the-court brief, which was joined by the Society for Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., points out that reporters frequently use computerized records. The brief argues that in denying GIS access in electronic format, Greenwich impedes the press’s ability to evaluate government operations. As the brief observes, requiring reporters to slowly manipulate GIS paper by hand is inherently unfair when government officials — having electronically stored the data with publicly funded technology — can call up sophisticated maps with a few computer key strokes.

GIS-assisted reporting frequently appears in newspapers nationwide. A 2001 article in the Austin American-Statesman, for example, used GIS records to analyze poor pipeline safety conditions across the U.S., and prompted government agencies to update pipeline safety regulations.

The Connecticut General Assembly enacted a law in 1991 that granted FOI requesters the right to access public records in whatever format they choose, including electronic format. “Connecticut’s law is very clear that a requester is entitled to computerized public records when they exist,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish.

Greenwich claims that the computerized GIS records are exempt from that law’s mandate, because electronic access implicates various FOI law exemptions pertaining to town security, trade secrets, and information technology system security. The media groups argue that Greenwich has provided little if any evidence to support the claims. The brief cautions that the endorsement of unsubstantiated exemptions would open the door to the effective evisceration of FOI law.

The Connecticut Supreme Court will likely schedule an oral argument in early 2005.

The brief is available on the Reporters Committee’s web site at: www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20041109-greenwich.pdf