UT professors sue over TikTok ban

I can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

A group of college professors is suing Texas for banning TikTok on public-university computers and phones, saying it has undermined their ability to teach students and research one of the world’s most popular apps.

Texas last year joined more than two dozen other states in banning the app on government-owned devices, with Gov. Greg Abbott saying the short-video app, which is owned by China-based company ByteDance, could be used by the “Chinese government … to attack our way of life.”

Because the ban covers faculty phones and campus Wi-Fi networks, the professors said the ban immediately halted research projects into TikTok and derailed their plans to lead classes discussing the app’s benefits and risks.

In a lawsuit filed in Austin on Thursday against Abbott and top Texas officials, the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, an advocacy group whose members include professors in Texas, argued the ban had infringed on their academic freedoms and constitutional rights.

“The government’s authority to control their research and teaching … cannot survive First Amendment scrutiny,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit is the third so far this year to challenge state TikTok bans on constitutional grounds. In Montana, TikTok and a group of creators on the app filed separate lawsuits saying a state law banning TikTok on all devices violated Montanans’ right to free expression.

Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which filed the suit on the coalition’s behalf, said the ban is not a “sensible or constitutional response” to critics’ worries that the app could be used for propaganda or espionage.

“The ban is suppressing research about the very concerns that Governor Abbott has raised, about disinformation, about data collection,” Jaffer said. “There are other ways to address those concerns that don’t impose the same severe burden on faculty and researchers’ First Amendment rights,” he added, as well as their “ability to continue studying what has, like it or not, become a hugely popular and influential communications platform.”


Dave Karpf, a board member of the coalition, said Texas’s ban had already had a chilling effect on university scholars eager to scrutinize how TikTok works. He also worried it marked a new step toward infringing on educators’ ability to teach about concepts that state politicians oppose.

“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,” he said.

“The amount of TikTok usage at UT-Austin is going to fall an imperceptible level by saying professors can’t use them in class,” he added. “I just don’t even understand what threat they’re trying to solve.”

See here, here, and here for the background on the Texas ban, and here for more on the Montana lawsuit. In that first link above, I suggested the possibility that professors at Texas public schools might sue over First Amendment concerns. It sounds to me like they have a decent case to say that the Abbott ban, which is surely legal in the context of banning the app from state-owned devices, is being interpreted too broadly by public universities. This is a federal complaint; I found case information but not a copy of the suit itself here. Federal cases take a long time to litigate but I would expect that the plaintiffs will request a temporary restraining order that will allow them to resume their work. I’ll keep an eye on this. CNN has more.

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