In response to what they have referred to as an “eviction crisis” in South Carolina, the state’s NAACP chapter established a Housing Navigator Program. This program trains volunteers to identify and contact tenants facing eviction to provide them information about their right to request a hearing on an eviction action. To timely identify those individuals, the organization relies on state court records available on South Carolina’s Public Index, a county-by-county database of legal filings. Because tenants are only granted 10 days from receipt of an eviction notice to request a hearing, the NAACP claims that it would be impossible for it to find all tenants subject to eviction actions fast enough to provide timely support using manual search methods alone. The NAACP claims that a data “scraping” program would automate the process, allowing the organization to rapidly search the Public Index for eviction cases and record the names of tenants facing eviction. However, while manual searching of the Public Index is permissible, the South Carolina Judicial Department prohibits the use of “scraping” on the database, and the terms of service for the Public Index prohibit users from using software to harvest the data.
According to its complaint, the NAACP made repeated attempts to contact the South Carolina Court Administration directly to discuss solutions that would allow the NAACP to gather eviction filings exclusively for its outreach purposes. The parties were unable to reach an agreement through those efforts. Instead, Court Administration representatives informed the NAACP that it should be able to use manual methods to get the necessary information directly from the Public Index. They also would not consider providing regular updates on eviction filings, including under S.C. Rule 610, which governs “requests” for “bulk distribution of judicial records.”
Following these unsuccessful attempts, the NAACP, represented by ACLU attorneys, filed a lawsuit in March 2022 against South Carolina State Court Administrator Tonnya K. Kohn and South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty. The NAACP alleged that the ban on scraping violates the First Amendment by unreasonably restricting access to public information and judicial records. The state defendants filed a reply brief on September 2, 2022, pushing back on the allegation that they failed to make any documents publicly available, and further arguing that the use of scraping presents “serious challenges to the functioning of the South Carolina Case Management System and its Public Index.”
Judge Lewis concluded that the NAACP may proceed with its suit against the defendants, finding that it stated a claim that the First Amendment prohibits defendants’ ban on scraping. The judge agreed with the state defendants’ assertion that the First Amendment provides the NAACP with “less than an unfettered right to access court records” and further conceded that the evidence may eventually demonstrate that (1) defendants have a sufficient reason to prohibit scraping, (2) access to the records is not burdened by the restriction, or (3) that defendants have provided sufficient alternatives to access the information. Judge Lewis concluded, however, that these factual disputes are more suitable for a motion for summary judgment. Further, she found that neither party represented that the matter would involve difficult questions of state law, and she disagreed with the defendants’ assertion that the NAACP’s lawsuit would create a danger of disrupting the proper administration of a state system. Accordingly, the state defendants’ motion to dismiss was denied, and the parties were ordered to submit a joint proposed amended scheduling order by January 17.
This case potentially has significant ramifications nationwide, not just for scraping, but for public records access more generally, particularly given the challenge to the state’s policy is based on the First Amendment. We will continue to monitor activity in this case and report on any litigation and regulatory developments as they occur.