A ban on TikTok on state devices and networks in Texas was challenged Thursday by First Amendment lawyers, who said the law violated the Constitution by restricting research and teaching at public universities.
Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, whose members include University of Texas professors who say their work was compromised after they denied access to TikTok on campus Wi-Fi and university-issued computers were lost.
The suit offers a glimpse of the real-world effect of bans targeting TikTok and the growing legal backlash associated with the effort. Universities in more than 20 states have banned TikTok in one way or another, according to the institute, based on new rules from lawmakers saying TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, poses a threat to national security.
The Knight First Amendment Institute, which deals pro bono with free speech cases, wants Texas and other states to exempt university faculties from the bans.
“The Supreme Court has characterized academic freedom as a special First Amendment concern,” said Ramya Krishnan, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute. “With so many Americans on TikTok, it’s important that researchers can study the impact this platform has on public discourse and society at large.”
Representatives for Governor Greg Abbott, who announced the ban in Texas in December, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Jacqueline Vickery, an associate professor at the University of North Texas and a digital media scholar, was forced by the ban to “suspend research projects and change her research agenda, change her teaching methodology, and remove course materials.” .
Ms. Vickery used to be 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 computers or internet networks , according to the suit. The ban in Texas also appears to extend to her personal cell phone based on her use of university email and other apps there, the lawsuit said.
Ms Vickery said in an interview that she had not had access to TikTok since the university returned from winter break, not even for an assignment where she wanted her students to read the privacy terms on the TikTok site. The effect of the ban on her classes and research has been “really challenging,” especially since she doesn’t have a personal laptop, she said.
“This is not just an app that young people use for fun, but there’s a lot of research going on with and through the site and there’s a lot of teaching going on,” Ms Vickery said. “It seems that the ban didn’t really consider 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 the right to free speech has also been raised in two lawsuits in Montana, both funded by the company. The state has instituted an initial state ban on TikTok that will take effect on January 1. The company is not involved in the Texas lawsuit.