A coalition of faculty members from Texas public universities has filed a lawsuit against Governor Greg Abbott and other officials over the state’s ban on TikTok on government-issued devices, effective next year. The coalition claims that this ban infringes on academic freedom and will prevent faculty members from using the platform to teach and conduct research in an academic capacity.
The lawsuit, filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, a free speech advocacy group, on behalf of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, an organization that advocates for research on technology’s impact on society, argues that banning public university faculty from studying and teaching with TikTok is not a sensible or constitutional response to concerns about data-collection and disinformation.
The Ban on TikTok
In December, Governor Abbott banned TikTok on state-owned or issued devices for employees in state agencies, including state university systems. At least 20 states have also banned TikTok on devices issued by a state agency, and several public universities have banned it on school-owned devices.
TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, was also banned from federal government-owned or issued devices in December 2022, with some exceptions, in the wake of growing security concerns over claims of Chinese government surveillance through the app.
The app has been under scrutiny from lawmakers on a federal and state level, with Montana becoming the first state to ban TikTok from operating in the state, effective Jan. 1, 2024, which would also ban app stores from offering TikTok in Montana.
The coalition representing Texas faculty said the TikTok ban was unconstitutional based on the First Amendment, citing academic freedom. “Texas’s TikTok ban is an assault on academic freedom, which is the lifeblood of every university and a central concern of the First Amendment,” said Ramya Krishnan, a senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute.
In its lawsuit, the coalition asked Texas officials to exempt faculty at public universities from the ban and provide them ways to access TikTok for research and teaching. According to the lawsuit, the state ban has hindered faculty research. The lawsuit provided an example of Jacqueline Vickery, an associate professor in the Department of Media Arts at the University of North Texas, who was forced to “suspend research projects and change her research agenda, alter her teaching methodology, and eliminate course materials.”
Some experts argue that allowing academics to study TikTok could actually help illuminate the risks associated with the app, which the state wants to address. “Like it or not, TikTok is an immensely popular communications platform, and its policies and practices are influencing culture and politics around the world,” said Dave Karpf, a Coalition for Independent Technology Research board member and associate professor in the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.
The Impact of TikTok
According to CEO Shou Zi Chew’s March statement before Congress, TikTok has more than 150 million monthly active users in the United States. Short-form films, typically set to music and created and shared by app users, have become a cultural phenomenon. These videos cover a wide range of topics, from comic skits to political commentary.
However, concerns about privacy and security have been raised about the popular app. There have been numerous suspicions that the app has been used to monitor and restrict any content deemed critical of the Chinese government. This is possible due to the government’s access to user data.
The Future of TikTok
The legal challenges to TikTok bans continue to mount, with the Texas faculty lawsuit joining a number of other legal challenges to TikTok bans across the country. The ban on TikTok has also sparked a wider debate about the role of Chinese technology companies in the U.S. and the potential risks of their access to user data.
TikTok faces allegations of monitoring and censorship by the Chinese government, as well as concerns about Chinese technology companies accessing user data, as its popularity continues to soar. It is yet to be seen whether the app can address these concerns and remain a leading social media platform.
The ban on TikTok has sparked a heated debate about academic freedom and national security concerns.
Some experts argue that studying TikTok could help illuminate the risks associated with the app, while others maintain that we cannot ignore the potential risks of Chinese technology companies accessing user data.
The legal challenges to TikTok bans across the country highlight the need for a nuanced approach to regulating technology companies and balancing concerns about national security with academic freedom and access to information.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is TikTok?
A: TikTok is a social media platform where users can create and share short-form videos, often set to music.
Q: Why has TikTok been banned on government-issued devices?
A: TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has faced criticism for its data collection practices and potential national security risks. Allegations suggest that the Chinese government has used the app to monitor and censor content critical of their governance, which has made their access to user data a major concern.
Q: Why are faculty members suing over the TikTok ban?
A: The coalition of faculty members from Texas public universities argues that the ban infringes on academic freedom. They claim a ban will prevent faculty members from using the platform to teach and conduct research in an academic capacity.
First published on: NBC News