TikTok ban lawsuit has its day in court

Looks like it was a pretty good day for the plaintiffs, but as we know that’s the first very small step in a long journey.

A federal judge seemed skeptical of the state’s reasoning to ban TikTok on Texas public university campuses at a Wednesday hearing on a lawsuit filed by a group of professors over the new directive.

In December 2022, Gov. Greg Abbott banned the use of TikTok on government-issued cellphones and laptops, joining more than 30 U.S. states that have issued similar directives over cybersecurity concerns. The state’s ban led public universities across Texas to block access to TikTok on their Wi-Fi and wired networks — but the professors behind the lawsuit, filed in July, argue the bans halted their plans to teach about and research the app’s benefits and risks.

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, who is representing the professors, argued the ban threatens public university faculty’s freedom of speech by limiting their research projects.

Proponents of the ban have noted that TikTok is owned by the China-based company ByteDance, and that the Chinese Community Party has, in at least one case, accessed data from the app to identify and locate protesters in Hong Kong. The Biden administration, too, issued a TikTok ban on federal government-issued mobile devices earlier this year.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman asked the professors’ attorney Wednesday why the ban should be tossed if other states and the federal government have similar measures in place. Jaffer argued the federal ban concerns executive agencies, not public universities whose professors feel their work is now limited.

In terms of cybersecurity concerns, Jaffer said privacy concerns hold true for most major social media apps, including Instagram and X, the site formerly known as Twitter. The state has not proved TikTok is a distinct threat worthy of banning when other social media apps are still allowed, he said.

“The defendants haven’t established that their concerns are real and not conjectural,” he added.

Instead of a ban, Jaffer said the professors he represents propose universities issue separate laptops or create a separate Wi-Fi network for researchers and faculty studying TikTok.

Todd Dickerson, the state’s assistant attorney general, argued that professors who wish to study or research TikTok can do so on their personal devices. But Jaffer said the ban also applies if a professor is conducting state work on their personal devices.

“Essentially what Texas is saying here is public university professors should be required to do their jobs on their own time, on their own dime,” Jaffer said.

See here, here, and here for the background. Just so we’re all clear, this is about the ban of TikTok on state university WiFi networks and devices. No one is arguing that there’s anything problematic about the bans on state or federal government-issued devices. I’ve said from the beginning that there’s a reasonable First Amendment claim here, the question is whether the state’s claim that the ban is reasonable and has limited effect will carry the day. Expect an appeal regardless of the ruling.

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