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A Columbia University free speech group sued Texas governor Greg Abbott and other officials Thursday, contending that the ban on using TikTok on state devices and networks is an attack on academic freedom.
Calling the ban “unconstitutional,” the lawsuit said that the Texas restriction on the app, which applies to public universities, is “seriously impeding” faculty research on TikTok. The ban prevents faculty from using the app in class, either to teach about TikTok itself or use app content to teach other subjects, the lawsuit said.
The Knight First Amendment Institute filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, a group of researchers and academics that advocates for studying the impact of technology on society. Texas is among more than two dozen states that have banned TikTok on official devices.
“This ban is an assault on academic freedom, and it’s compromising vital research,” said Ramya Krishnan, senior staff attorney at the Knight institute, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. She added that the popular platform’s reach, spanning over 115 million Americans and two-thirds of American teens, makes it imperative to study.
“It’s incredibly important that researchers are able to study the platform and inform the public how this platform is impacting public discourse and society more generally,” she said.
How do we teach media literacy for an app we’re not allowed to use?”—Jacqueline Ryan Vickery
The lawsuit points specifically to the example of Jacqueline Ryan Vickery, a University of North Texas professor who had to suspend and alter her research projects because of the ban. Vickery is the director of research for UNT’s Youth Media Lab and studies how young people use social media for informal learning, activism and self-expression.
Vickery said she was in the midst of two research papers focused on TikTok—one studying the intersection of the app and school shootings and the other focused on generational identity—when the ban forced her to stop her work.
“I don’t think a lot of people recognize when this ban went into place it’s not just accessing an app you use for entertainment, but it shut down ways we teach,” Vickery said in an interview.
She previously utilized TikTok to teach students about misinformation and media literacy and to compare community guidelines and standards to other apps.
“How do we teach media literacy for an app we’re not allowed to use?” she said, adding it has “left students on their own to navigate.”
The lawsuit was filed against multiple Texas officials, including Abbott, University of North Texas chancellor Michael Williams and the nine members of UNT’s Board of Regents.
Citing concerns about cybersecurity and privacy, a growing number of governments around the world have banned TikTok. Congress and more than half of U.S. states have banned the app from official devices.
Government officials, including FBI director Chris Wray, have voiced concerns about TikTok’s parent company, China-based ByteDance, and its access to user data. TikTok has insisted it does not give U.S. data to the Chinese government.
The Texas governor first issued an executive order banning TikTok among state employees in December 2022, prohibiting the app’s download onto any state-issued device. In January, Abbott issued a ban on the app on campus Wi-Fi networks. Abbott signed the ban into law in June.
“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 a February statement. Abbott’s office declined to comment to Inside Higher Ed about the lawsuit.
But Krishnan, the attorney at the First Amendment institute, said faculty research could help alleviate security concerns.
“This is impeding faculty from pursuing research that relates to TikTok,” she said. That includes “research that would help us better understand and respond to the privacy and security risk Texas purports to address though the ban.”
The lawsuit suggested a compromise could be made by giving faculty that specifically study TikTok dedicated laptops and Wi-Fi networks to access the app. It also suggested passing privacy legislation restricting TikTok from gathering users’ information.
Montana was the first state to ban TikTok entirely, a restriction set to go into effect in 2024. On July 5, TikTok asked a U.S. judge to file a preliminary injunction to block the ban.
Krishnan said she hopes the lawsuit against Texas, which she calls an “unprecedented move,” sets a standard for other states that have also enacted bans on college campuses.
“The hope out of this litigation is we want to ensure whatever state employee bans there are include adequate breathing space for teaching and research on TikTok,” she said.
She added she is not against some restrictions for state employees that deal with sensitive information, “but this ban sweeps far more broadly.”