Connecticut Supreme Court rules that the cities must release electronic GIS mapping data
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Connecticut Supreme Court rules that the cities must release electronic GIS mapping data

Publicly releasing electronically formatted government maps has not been shown to pose a public safety risk or violate a trade secret, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

June 16, 2005 -- Greenwich, Connecticut -- Electronically formatted maps, which allow journalists to plot geographically referenced statistical data in studying the adequacy of government programs and performance, must be released in electronic form to open records requesters in Connecticut, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday.

The maps, created from Geographic Information System data and showing city landmarks, including the location of "security-sensitive'' sites such as schools, public utilities, and bridges, must be open because officials in Greenwich, Conn., did not show that their release will violate a trade secret or threaten public safety, the high court ruled.

Greenwich citizen Stephen Whitaker requested electronic access to the city's GIS maps in December 2001 under the state open records law.

The town refused to give Whitaker electronic access to its GIS system, arguing that the records qualified for public safety and trade secret exemptions to the state's public records law. 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.

Justice Christine S. Vertefeuille, writing for the court, rejected the argument that the trade secret exemption could apply to the electronic GIS maps. All of the information contained in the maps is available piecemeal from other town departments, so there is nothing secret about them, she wrote.

Vertefeuille found the town's asserted public safety exemption equally unconvincing. Although witnesses -- among them the Greenwich police chief -- had testified that public safety would be jeopardized if the GIS data were released, little concrete evidence of that was presented. "Generalized claims of a possible safety risk" are not enough to satisfy the government's burden of proof on an exemption claim, Vertefeuille wrote.

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 urging the high court to order the GIS data's release. In addition to its legal arguments, the brief highlighted the issue's relevance to the news media by compiling stories that would not have been written without electronic mapping.

Greenwich has 10 days to ask all seven supreme court justices to reconsider the decision, which was decided by a five-member panel.

(Director, Dep't of Information Technology of the Town of Greenwich v. Freedom of Information Comm'n; Access Counsel: Clifton A. Leonhardt, Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission; Hartford, Conn.) -