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Texas TikTok ban challenged by lawsuit from university faculty

The lawsuit was filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, which was representing professors at Texas public universities.
Greg Abbott during a press conference at the Capitol in Austin, Texas
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.Montinique Monroe / Getty Images file

A coalition representing faculty at Texas public universities is suing Gov. Greg Abbott and other officials over the state’s ban on TikTok on government-issued devices, effective next year. The ban, they say in the lawsuit, will prevent faculty members from using the platform to teach and conduct research in an academic capacity. 

The lawsuit was filed Thursday by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, a free speech advocacy group, on behalf of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, a organization that advocates for research on technology’s impact on society. 

“Banning public university faculty from studying and teaching with TikTok is not a sensible or constitutional response to concerns about data-collection and disinformation,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute, in a press release.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In December, Abbott banned TikTok on state-owned or issued devices for employees in state agencies, including state university systems. At least 20 states have banned TikTok on devices issued by a state agency and several public universities have banned it on school-owned devices, according to The Associated Press.

TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, was also banned from federal government-owned or issued devices in December 2022, with some exceptions, in the wake of growing security concerns over claims of Chinese government surveillance through the app.

The app has been under scrutiny from lawmakers on a federal and state level. In May, Montana became the first state to ban TikTok from operating in the state. The legislation, effective Jan. 1, 2024, would also ban app stores from offering TikTok in Montana.

The Texas faculty lawsuit joins a number of other legal challenges to TikTok bans. 

“The security risks associated with the use of TikTok on devices used to conduct the important business of our state must not be underestimated or ignored,” Abbott said in February when announcing the ban.

The coalition representing Texas faculty said the TikTok ban was unconstitutional based on the First Amendment, citing academic freedom. “Texas’s TikTok ban is an assault on academic freedom, which is the lifeblood of every university and a central concern of the First Amendment,” said Ramya Krishnan, a senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute.

In its lawsuit, the coalition asked Texas officials to exempt faculty at public universities from the ban and provide them ways to access TikTok for research and teaching. 

The state ban has hindered faculty research, according to the lawsuit, which provided as an example the case of Jacqueline Vickery, an associate professor in the Department of Media Arts at the University of North Texas, who was forced to “to suspend research projects and change her research agenda, alter her teaching methodology, and eliminate course materials.”

Some experts argue that allowing academics to study TikTok could actually help illuminate the risks associated with the app, which the state wants to address. 

“Like it or not, TikTok is an immensely popular communications platform, and its policies and practices are influencing culture and politics around the world,” said Dave Karpf, a Coalition for Independent Technology Research board member and associate professor in the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs

TikTok has over 150 million monthly active users in the U.S., according to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s testimony before Congress in March.