A group of college professors sued Texas today for banning TikTok on state devices and networks, as reported by The Washington Post. The plaintiffs say the prohibition compromises their research and teaching while “preventing or seriously impeding faculty from pursuing research that relates to TikTok,” including studying the very disinformation and data-collection practices the restriction claims to address. The plaintiffs say the ban makes it “almost impossible for faculty to use TikTok in their classrooms — whether to teach about TikTok or to use content from TikTok to teach about other subjects.”
The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed the lawsuit in the name of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, an academic research advocacy group the Texas professors are members of. The lawsuit names Governor Greg Abbott and 14 other state and public education officials as defendants. “The government’s authority to control their research and teaching… cannot survive First Amendment scrutiny,” the complaint says.
One example cited by the plaintiffs is Jacqueline Vickery, Associate Professor in the Department of Media Arts at the University of North Texas, who studies and teaches how young people use social media for expression and political organizing. “The ban has forced her to suspend research projects and change her research agenda, alter her teaching methodology, and eliminate course materials,” the complaint reads. “It has also undermined her ability to respond to student questions and to review the work of other researchers, including as part of the peer-review process.”
The lawsuit says that, although faculty at public universities are public employees, the First Amendment shields them from government control over their research and teaching. “Imposing a broad restraint on the research and teaching of public university faculty is not a constitutionally permissible means of protecting Texans’ ‘way of life’ or countering the threat of disinformation,” the suit says, citing Abbott’s comments that he feared the Chinese government “wields TikTok to attack our way of life.” The suit also condemns the double standard of claiming to care about Texans’ privacy while still allowing Meta, Google and Twitter (all American companies) to harvest much of the same data as TikTok.
“The ban is suppressing research about the very concerns that Governor Abbott has raised, about disinformation, about data collection,” Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, told The Washington Post. “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.”
This is the third lawsuit this year challenging state TikTok bans. Two Montana lawsuits funded by the Chinese social media company claim the prohibition violates free speech rights. According to The New York Times, TikTok is not involved with the Texas suit.