Challenge Texas TikTok Ban for Threatening ‘Academic Freedom’

TikTok’s ban on state devices and networks was challenged Thursday by First Amendment lawyers in Texas, who said the law violates the Constitution by restricting research and teaching at public universities.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed the suit on behalf of a group called the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, whose members include Texas university professors who say their work was compromised after they lost access to TikTok on campus Wi-Fi and university-issued computers.

The lawsuit offers a glimpse into the real-world impact of the ban targeting TikTok and the mounting legal response accompanying the effort. Universities in more than 20 states have banned TikTok in some way, according to the institute, based on new rules from lawmakers who say TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, poses a national security threat.

The Knight First Amendment Institute, which works on free speech issues for free, wants Texas and other states to exempt university faculty from the ban.

“The Supreme Court has called academic freedom a particular First Amendment concern,” said Ramya Krishnan, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute. “With so many Americans on TikTok, it is important that researchers be able to study the impact of this platform on public discourse and society in general.”

Representatives for Mr. Abbott, who announced the ban in December, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The suit said Jacqueline Vickery, an associate professor at the University of North Texas and digital media researcher, had to “suspend research projects and change her research agenda, change her teaching methodology, and cancel course materials,” because of the ban.

Ms. Vickery was previously able to collect and analyze large numbers of TikTok videos for her work, which focuses on how young people use digital and social media for informal learning and activism, but she can no longer do so on university-owned computers or online networks, the suit says. The lawsuit said the Texas ban also extends to her personal mobile phone based on her use of college email and other apps there.

Ms. Vickery said in an interview that she had not been able to access TikTok since the university returned from winter break, even for an assignment where she wanted her students to read the privacy terms on the TikTok site. She said the impact of the ban on her classes and research has been “really hard”, especially since she doesn’t own a personal laptop.

“This is not just an app that young people use for fun but there is a lot of research happening with and through the site as well as a lot of teaching,” said Ms. Vickery. “The ban does not appear to have taken into account the tiered consequences.”

Ms. Vickery is part of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, a group of academics, civil society researchers and journalists that formed last year to promote “the right to examine the impact of technology on society.”

The question of whether banning TikTok violates free speech rights has also been raised in two Montana court cases, each funded by the company. The country has its first-ever government ban on TikTok going into effect on January 1. The company is not involved in the lawsuit in Texas.