September 22, 2023

First Amendment group is suing the Texas governor and others over the state’s TikTok ban on official devices

NEW YORK (AP) — A First Amendment group on Thursday sued Texas governor Greg Abbott and others over the state’s TikTok ban on official devices, arguing that the ban — which extends to public universities — is unconstitutional and hinders academic freedom.

The complaint was filed by The Knight First Amendment Institute of Columbia University, a New York-based free speech group that is suing on behalf of a coalition of academics and researchers who study the impact of technology on society.

The lawsuit said the state’s decision to restrict access to TikTok on official devices, as well as personal devices used to conduct state business, covers education and research. And more specifically, it said it “seriously impeded” faculty from conducting research on the app — including research that could alleviate or allay concerns about TikTok.

TikTok critics have alleged that the popular social media app, owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, could push pro-Beijing propaganda on its platform or hand over US user data to the Chinese government if forced by China’s national intelligence laws. the country.

TikTok has long maintained that it has not handed over US data to the Chinese government and says it will not if asked. To fend off the allegations, the company is overseeing a project to store US user data on servers maintained by software giant Oracle. But control has not diminished.

Congress, the White House and other Western governments have banned the use of TikTok on official devices, citing fears of espionage.

Texas enacted its own ban in December as dozens of states and several universities across the country enacted a series of similar bans. In June, Abbott signed legislation codifying the ban, first issued as an executive order.

In an interview, Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight Institute, said the group decided to sue Texas after talking to several professors in the state affected by the ban.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, cites a professor, Jacqueline Vickery, who has had to suspend or change her research projects as a result of the ban. The lawsuit said the ban also prevents Vickery, a professor at the University of North Texas, from assigning students work in class that requires access to TikTok or retrieving certain videos for reference during class discussions.

University administrators have told Vickery that her applications for an exemption will not be considered, according to the lawsuit, which also lists the school system’s chancellor and members of the board of regents as defendants.

“Concerns about data collection and disinformation on social media platforms, including TikTok, are legitimate concerns,” Jaffer said. “The question is whether this type of ban is a sensible or constitutional response to those concerns. And that’s not it.”

Jaffer said the group also sees the lawsuit as an opportunity to counter greater efforts in Texas to “curtail academic freedom,” pointing to attempts by state lawmakers to limit the tenure of college professors. Last month, Abbott also signed a bill banning Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) offices in public colleges and universities.

The coalition of researchers is asking the court to declare the ban a violation of the First Amendment for college faculty seeking access to TikTok for research and education, and grant waivers to its members.

A spokesman for the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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