ACLU, NAACP sue over South Carolina ban on 'scraping' court records

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REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

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  • ACLU, NAACP argue South Carolina judiciary's ban on scraping violates 1st Amendment
  • NAACP seeking to scrape eviction filings to assist renters
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(Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP filed a lawsuit on Wednesday challenging the South Carolina judiciary's ban on the "scraping" or automated collection of data from publicly accessible online repositories of filings in the state's courts.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Columbia, the NAACP's South Carolina chapter, represented by lawyers at the ACLU, argued the ban had impaired its ability to help tenants facing eviction by timely identifying them and providing resources and affordable housing opportunities.

The South Carolina NAACP said it wanted to try to help address an eviction crisis in the state that disproportionately impacts Black renters by gathering and recording information from the court's Public Index that is publicly available.

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But it said the terms of service for the Public Index, a county-by-county repository of legal filings, expressly prohibits using software to harvest data and the South Carolina Court Administration employed technical means to prevent it.

It argued the ban violates the U.S. Constitution's 1st Amendment by unreasonably restricting access to public information and judicial records.

"This case is about ensuring core First Amendment principles, like the right to access public court filings, are applied in a way that meets our rapidly expanding digital reality," Allen Chaney, the ACLU of South Carolina's legal director, said in a statement.

The South Carolina Court Administration did not respond to requests for comment.

Opponents of data scraping argue it can slow down websites and threaten people's privacy, while researchers and activists contend it can provide a vital way to examine large troves of public data.

The ACLU said the South Carolina lawsuit builds on an earlier case it filed in Washington, D.C., federal court on behalf of academic researchers, computer scientists and journalists seeking to ensure the U.S. Justice Department would not enforce the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act against them to bar online research techniques such as scraping.

U.S. District Judge John Bates in 2020 in that case ruled that scraping publicly available portions of a website does not violate the law. The U.S. Supreme Court later in another case adopted a narrow reading of the CFAA.

The Free Law Project, a legal-research nonprofit group that has sought to gather and make federal court filings free through its website, on Twitter hailed the South Carolina case.

"The free law movement is now being pursued by the ACLU," it wrote. "Huge."

The case is South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. Kohn, U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, No. 3:22-cv-01007.

For the NAACP: Allen Chaney of ACLU of South Carolina; Esha Bhandari, Sandra Park, Laura Moraff of the ACLU; and Joseph Schottenfeld and Martina Tiku of the NAACP

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.