Officials and legislators are ramping up their threats to prohibit the Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok, claiming it endangers personal information and national security.
Legal scholars and advocates for free expression, however, point to the First Amendment as a possible roadblock to a complete prohibition.
In a letter to Congress last week, a coalition of free speech advocacy organizations urged a solution short of an outright ban, arguing that a nationwide ban on TikTok would have serious ramifications for free expression in the digital sphere, infringing on Americans’ First Amendment rights, and setting a potent and worrying precedent in a time of increased censorship of internet users around the world.
In light of fears that the Chinese government may use user data for espionage and influence operations in the United States, TikTok CEO Shou Chew made the appeal as he was being questioned by U.S. lawmakers.
A “platform for free expression” and a “modern-day version of the town square,” TikTok claims to have over 150 million users in the United States alone.
However, ByteDance, a Beijing-based business, owns the platform, prompting concerns from U.S. officials that the Chinese government may use the app’s user data to influence or spy on Americans.
While there are valid privacy and national security concerns about TikTok, the First Amendment consequences of a ban have so far received little public attention, according to Aaron Terr, head of public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
Terr said in an interview, “If nothing else, it’s important for that to be a significant part of the conversation.” “People should think about that in addition to national security issues.”
The First Amendment is not sacrosanct, to be sure. The First Amendment does not safeguard all speech. Obscenity, libel, and instigation are all prohibited.
The Supreme Court has made it plain, however, that there are constraints on government regulation of speech, even when a foreign adversary is involved or when national security is at stake.
In a landmark 1965 case, the Supreme Court invalidated a law that prevented Americans from receiving foreign mail that the government deemed was “communist political propaganda.”
In another consequential case involving a defamation lawsuit brought against The New York Times, the court ruled that even an “erroneous statement” enjoyed some constitutional protection.
“And that’s relevant because here, one of the reasons that Congress is concerned about TikTok is the potential that the Chinese government could use it to spread disinformation,” said Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the signatories of the letter to Congress.
Proponents of a ban deny a prohibition would run afoul of the First Amendment.
“This is not a First Amendment issue, because we’re not trying to ban booty videos,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a longtime critic of TikTok, said on the Senate floor on Monday.
ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party, Rubio said.
“So, if the Communist Party goes to ByteDance and says, ‘We want you to use that algorithm to push these videos on Americans to convince them of whatever,’ they have to do it. They don’t have an option,” Rubio said.
The Biden administration has reportedly demanded that ByteDance divest itself from TikTok or face a possible ban.
TikTok denies the allegations and says it has taken measures to protect the privacy and security of its U.S. user data.
Rubio is sponsoring one of several competing bills that envision different pathways to a TikTok ban.
A House bill called the Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries Act would empower the president to shut down TikTok.
A Senate bill called the RESTRICT Act would authorize the Commerce Department to investigate information and communications technologies to determine whether they pose national security risks.
This would not be the first time the U.S. government has attempted to ban TikTok.
In 2020, then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order declaring a national emergency that would have effectively shut down the app.
In response, TikTok sued the Trump administration, arguing that the executive order violated its due process and First Amendment rights.
While courts did not weigh in on the question of free speech, they blocked the ban on the grounds that Trump’s order exceeded statutory authority by targeting “informational materials” and “personal communication.”
Allowing the ban would “have the effect of shutting down, within the United States, a platform for expressive activity used by about 700 million individuals globally,” including more than 100 million Americans, federal judge Wendy Beetlestone wrote in response to a lawsuit brought by a group of TikTok users.