Texas TikTok Ban Challenged for Threatening ‘Academic Freedom’

A ban of TikTok on state devices and networks in Texas was challenged by First Amendment lawyers on Thursday, who said that the law violated the Constitution by limiting research and teaching at public universities.

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

The suit offers a glimpse into the real-world effect of bans targeting TikTok and the mounting legal pushback accompanying the efforts. Universities in more than 20 states have banned TikTok in some fashion, according to the institute, based on new rules from lawmakers who say that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, poses a national security threat.

The Knight First Amendment Institute, which works on free speech cases pro bono, wants Texas and other states to exempt university faculty from the bans.

“The Supreme Court has characterized academic freedom as a special concern of the First Amendment,” said Ramya Krishnan, a lawyer at the Knight First Amendment Institute. “With so many Americans on TikTok, it’s important that researchers are able to study the impact that this platform is having on public discourse and society more generally.”

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

The lawsuit said that Jacqueline Vickery, an associate professor at the University of North Texas and a digital media scholar, had been forced to “suspend research projects and change her research agenda, alter her teaching methodology, and eliminate course material,” 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 this on her university-owned computers or internet networks, according to the suit. The Texas ban also appears to extend to her personal cellphone based on her use of university email and other apps there, the lawsuit said.

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 TikTok’s site. The ban’s effect on her classes and research has been “really challenging,” particularly as she does not have a personal laptop, she said.

“This isn’t just an app that young people use for fun but there is a whole lot of research happening with and through the site as well as a whole lot of teaching,” Ms. Vickery said. “It doesn’t seem like the ban has really taken into consideration the trickle-down consequences.”

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

The question of whether banning TikTok violates free speech rights has also been raised in two lawsuits in Montana, both of which have been funded by the company. The state has a first-of-its-kind state ban of TikTok going into effect on Jan. 1. The company is not involved in the Texas lawsuit.

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