SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Do you need a government license to trace a map from publicly available data? It might sound ridiculous, but in California the answer is “yes.” Today, an entrepreneur joined with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a federal lawsuit challenging these regulations because they violate his First Amendment rights.
Ryan Crownholm is an Army veteran and self-described “serial entrepreneur” who runs a business called MySitePlan.com. He takes publicly available maps and draws approximate lines—such as property lines or locations of physical structures—on them to create new maps for customers called “site plans.” These drawings are used for planning purposes; they are not authoritative drawings meant to establish original measurements. Ryan’s website explicitly states that “this is not a legal survey, nor is it intended to replace one.” Furthermore, California’s own building departments teach homeowners and contractors how to make the exact same drawings Ryan makes.
None of that stopped the California Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists from singling MySitePlan.com out for prosecution, for what it claimed was unlicensed land surveying. On Dec. 28, 2021, officials sent Ryan a “citation order” via email demanding that he “cease and desist from violating” the law and that he pay an administrative fine of $1,000.
“Using public data to draw lines on public maps is not surveying, it’s free speech,” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. “Ryan doesn’t lose his free speech rights simply because he’s making money off that speech. There is no reason to single out MySitePlan.com for prosecution.”
Over his nine years in business, Ryan has served thousands of happy customers, including homeowners who are looking to build a shed on their property, event venues that want to show where seats can be placed when hosting a wedding, apartment complexes that want to show their tenants where to find dumpsters or pools, and many others. The customers have been pleased with Ryan’s work and no complaints have ever been filed about his business.
“California regulators are strangling entrepreneurs, like me, with red tape even though customers are pleased with the valuable services we provide,” Ryan said. “Prosecuting my company hurts homeowners, contractors, landscapers, farmers, wedding venues and others who depend on my service.”
In 2006, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying published model rules that specifically recognize that the types of drawings Ryan creates should not require a license.
“California’s regulations go far beyond what other surveying regulators think is appropriate,” said IJ Attorney Mike Greenberg. “This is yet another example of an established industry using the government to shut down popular, innovative competition. If read literally, California’s laws could harm services everyday people use such as Uber and Google Maps. It would even criminalize drawing a makeshift map on a napkin to help a lost tourist find the way to their destination.”
IJ has fought back against similar regulations on occupational speech, including a case in Mississippi which ultimately led to a similar surveying law being struck down, a California case which ended a law that criminalized teaching trades to people without a high school diploma, and an ongoing North Carolina case which challenges a law that says taking photos with a drone should be regulated as “surveying.”