ASNE joins amicus in California public-records case

Orange County recently denied the Sierra Club's request for basemaps -- government-generated geographical data that helps news organizations and other requesters determine the impact of government initiatives and the allocation of public resources. Last week, ASNE joined 23 other media organizations in a brief supporting the Sierra Club's request.

ASNE is one of 24 media organizations and companies that filed an amicus brief before the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Fourth District, in an effort to secure continued access to key geographical information in that state. Sierra Club v. Superior Court of the State of California, County of Orange, represents the second time an organization has gone to court to enforce the California Public Records Act with regard to these particular records.

At issue are Geographic Information Systems base maps. GIS is technology that allows for sophisticated analysis of geographic information; the “base maps” are the foundational layer containing government generated data such as boundary lines, addresses and ownership information. A user can layer other public databases over base maps to discern the impact of government initiatives in a particular area or determine the allocation of government-provided resources over a city, county or state. Orange County denied the Sierra Club's request for its base maps and then offered them for sale at an inflated price. The County argued that it is not required to disclose the base maps because they qualify as “software” that is exempted under the California Public Records Act. A different California Court of Appeals had previously rejected a similar claim raised by Santa Clara County, providing the impetus for the Sierra Club to appeal in state court.

Although ASNE generally does not get involved in state-level cases, we joined this amicus because if the case is wrongly decided it may have a domino effect in other states. The brief highlights the journalistic significance of base maps by recounting many instances in which they have been used by news organizations and other requesters to inform the public about government projects and expenditures. The brief also warns that an adverse ruling would cost California requesters thousands of dollars for records that are currently required to be provided at little or no cost under public records laws.

Kevin M. Goldberg is legal counsel for ASNE and special counsel with Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, PLC.

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