Texas Professors Sue Abbott Over TikTok Ban at Public Universities

Governor Greg Abbott banned TikTok on state-owned or issued devices for employees in state agencies, including state university systems.

Texas Professors Sue Abbott Over TikTok Ban at Public Universities

Photo: Rokas, Adobe Stock

A coalition representing faculty from Texas public universities is suing Governor Greg Abbott and other state officials over its TikTok ban on government-issued devices.

Led largely by Republicans, there have been pushes to ban the app for over two years. In Dec. 2020, a proposed ban by then-President Donald Trump was stopped in court. Calls to ban the app from government devices gained momentum in November after U.S. FBI Director Christopher Wray said it poses national security risks.

In January, President Joe Biden signed a 4,126-page spending bill that in part prohibits the use of the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, on devices issued to its nearly four million employees. Staffers were sent a memo indicating they must delete the app and may no longer download it on their government-issued devices. Exceptions were made for law enforcement, national security, and security research purposes.

In February, Abbott banned TikTok on state-owned or issued devices for employees in state agencies, including state university systems. At least 20 states have implemented similar bans and several public universities have banned it on school-owned devices as well. Abbott codified the ban in June.

“The security risks associated with the use of TikTok on devices used to conduct the important business of our state must not be underestimated or ignored,” Abbott said.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas by the free speech advocacy group Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, an organization that advocates for research on technology’s impact on society and includes professors in Texas.

“Concerns about data collection and disinformation on social media platforms, including TikTok, are legitimate concerns,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute. “The question is whether this kind of ban is a sensible or constitutional response to those concerns. And it’s not.”

The suit claims the ban is preventing faculty members from using the social media platform to teach in an academic capacity, and that it is “seriously impeding” faculty pursuing research into the app, including research that could counteract concerns about TikTok, reports NBC News.

In part, the complaint says Jacqueline Vickery, an associate professor in the Department of Media Arts at the University of North Texas, had to suspend or alter her research projects as a result of the ban, according to CBS News. Vickery, who studies how young people use social media for political organizing and self-expression, said for years, the app helped her teach complicated concepts in an engaging and relatable way, reports The Texas Tribune. She also can no longer ask her class to study TikTok’s privacy policy, scrutinize its data collection, or analyze how its algorithm works.

The coalition is asking Texas officials to exempt faculty at public universities from the ban and provide them with ways to access TikTok for research and teaching.

“Banning public university faculty from studying and teaching with TikTok is not a sensible or constitutional response to concerns about data-collection and disinformation,” said Jaffer. “Texas must pursue its objectives with tools that don’t impose such a heavy burden on First Amendment rights. Privacy legislation would be a good place to start.”

Montana to Ban TikTok Altogether

Other free speech lawsuits have been filed, including one by five TikTokers who sued Montana after Governor Greg Giaforte signed a bill banning the app in the state. The legislation, which goes into effect in Jan. 2024, makes it illegal for app stores to give users in Montana the option to download TikTok and for the company to operate within the state.

“Montana’s blanket ban prevents our clients, and all Montanans, from engaging in protected speech,” said Ambika Kumar, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “We are determined to see that this misguided and invalid law is permanently enjoined.”

TikTok has maintained it hasn’t given any U.S. data to the Chinese government and that it is overseeing a project to store U.S. user data on servers maintained by Oracle, a software company.

The app has over one billion users worldwide and has been downloaded over 210 million times in the U.S., according to Wallaroo Media. It generated $11 billion in revenue in 2022, compared to $4.6 billion in 2021 — an almost 140% increase.

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About the Author


Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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