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Federal judge upholds Texas' ban of TikTok on state-issued devices

A hand holds a cellphone with the TikTok logo on it.
Nordskov Media via Flickr
Gov. Greg Abbott has banned the use of TikTok on government-issued devices such as cellphones and laptops.

A federal judge in Austin has rejected a challenge to Texas’ ban of TikTok on government-issued devices such as cellphones, tablets and laptops. The policy applies to all state agencies, including public universities and colleges.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University had sued Gov. Greg Abbott and state officials on behalf of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, which includes academics and researchers. The lawsuit claimed the ban was unconstitutional.

But in an opinion issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman upheld the policy.

“Ultimately, the Court finds that Texas’s TikTok ban is a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral restriction on a nonpublic forum and therefore is constitutional,” he wrote.

The ruling comes a little less than a month after Pitman heard oral arguments over the ban. The Knight First Amendment Institute argued the ban was preventing public university faculty from both researching the social media platform and using it to teach.

Knight Institute Executive Director Jameel Jaffer called the ruling disappointing.

"Restricting research and teaching about one of the world’s major communications platforms is not a sensible or constitutionally permissible way of addressing legitimate concerns about TikTok’s data-collection practices," he said in a statement.

While protecting academic freedom and public employees’ right to free speech is important, Pitman said in his opinion he did not find the state ban violated those rights.

“Texas’s TikTok ban is limiting the use of an app on state-provided devices and networks, which is not a blanket prohibition,” he wrote.

In contrast, a federal judge in November struck down a Montana law that sought to ban the app statewide. The ruling temporarily halts that state's policy from taking effect Jan. 1.

Pitman said Texas' ban on using TikTok on government-issued devices and networks was prompted by concerns that the Chinese government could access sensitive data. The Biden administration even previously called for the Beijing-based company that owns TikTok to sell or face a ban in the U.S. Last December, Congress approved a measure banning the app on federal government devices.

TikTok, for its part, spent about $1.5 billion on an initiative to address U.S. national security concerns called Project Texas.

“Put simply, Project Texas is an unprecedented initiative dedicated to making every American on TikTok feel safe, with confidence that their data is secure and the platform is free from outside influence,” the company said in a statement on its website.

TikTok also said it created a standalone version of the platform for users in the U.S. that stores their data on servers managed by Oracle, an Austin-based company.

Even if Texas’ data concerns about TikTok have not yet been “fully verified,” Pitman said, the state is within its rights to prohibit the app on state-issued devices as a precaution.

Still, Knight Institute Senior Staff Attorney Ramya Krishnan said singling out TikTok over data concerns does not protect privacy because other platforms collect the same type of information on users.

"The Court should have required Texas to justify the ban," she said in a statement. "It’s disappointing it didn't."

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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