A group of college professors is challenging a Texas ban on TikTok on public-university computers and phones. On Thursday, free speech lawyers filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas on behalf of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research.
According to CNN, the group argues that the ban infringes on constitutional rights and limits research and teaching on university campuses across the state. The suit is the third to challenge state TikTok bans on constitutional grounds this year, with many free speech lawyers believing the ban is not a sensible or constitutional response to concerns about the app.
The lawsuit was filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of the coalition. 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.
Jacqueline Vickery, an associate professor at the University of North Texas and a digital media scholar, was one of the plaintiffs in the suit. Vickery stated, “It’s so helpful to say: Let’s watch this together and talk about who’s making it, why’s the algorithm showing it to you, what trends can we take away from this.”
Vickery also explained how the TikTok ban had adversely affected her research projects and teaching methodology. She was forced to “suspend research projects and alter her research agenda, change her teaching methodology, and eliminate course material,” because of the ban, according to the suit.
Dave Karpf, Board Member of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, believes that the ban sets a bad precedent. He states, “The idea that just by virtue of living in that state, since they’re technically government employees, that research will be expressly forbidden — that’s a precedent we need to confront now, because it’s a catastrophically bad idea.”
Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, argues that the ban is not a sensible or constitutional response to concerns about the app. He states, “Concerns about data collection and disinformation on social media platforms, including TikTok, are legitimate concerns. The question is whether this kind of ban is a sensible or constitutional response to those concerns. And it’s not.”
Lawyer Ramya Krishnan of the Knight First Amendment Institute also weighed in regarding the issue of academic freedom. She states, “The Supreme Court has characterized academic freedom as a special concern of the First Amendment. 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.”
No money or support from TikTok or its owner ByteDance was received by the coalition or institute in filing this lawsuit. Bans on the popular app have been heavily criticized by civil liberties groups as violations of Americans’ protections from government censorship. Neither Texas nor federal officials have provided evidence of the app being used for brainwashing or spying on users.
The Knight First Amendment Institute is calling upon Texas and other states to exempt university faculty from the bans. With TikTok being used by millions of Americans and generating lively discussion, the issue of protecting academic freedom and the value of the app is one that continues to spark debate.