A Ban On TikTok In A Nation With Free Expression?

Ryan Heshmati

May 12, 2023

Banning TikTok. The idea has gained traction in recent months. Cathy McMorris, a Republic Congresswoman, argued, “ Tiktok is a weapon used by the Chinese Communist party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations….” This type of messaging has proven effective, with Anders Anglesey of Newsweek noting a poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies finding “… 52 percent of 1,500 people surveyed agreed that TikTok posed a national security threat to the U.S…” To ban a social media platform like TikTok, however, poses serious questions about weighing state interest and that of free expression. Can banning TikTok reconcile with continued respect and protection of free expression?

Many proponents of the ban might argue the restriction of the use of Tikok specifically has nothing to do with a restriction on free expression or speech. The government can restrict the location of expression when, for instance, it involves obstruction of traffic. And those receptive to the ban stem their concern in far more serious threats than obstruction of traffic. Kelvin Chan and Haleluya Hadero of The Associated Press report, 

“Both the FBI and officials at the Federal Communications Commission have warned that ByteDance [Tikok parent company] could share TikTok user data…with China’s authoritarian government.” The distinction between constraining a platform/method for expression in the interest of national security compared with restricting the content involved in expression may comfort proponents, but separating the two may not be so easy.

The forum an individual chooses to exercise their free expression on is an element of that expression. Since proving the state interest in banning TikTok’s use outweighs the individual’s right to free expression is challenging, the situation is complicated. The ACLU’s Jenna Leventoff argues, “The government can’t impose this type of total ban unless it’s necessary to prevent extremely serious, immediate harm to national security,” expanding by pointing out, “There’s no public evidence of that type of harm….” Additionally, it is worth pointing out that American adversarial sentiment has historically served as a convenient pretext to challenge the extent of individual freedoms, with examples as recent as post-9/11 government security measures clashing with principles of data privacy.

Getting enough lawmakers on board for a TikTok ban is a major challenge on its own. Further, should that occur, serious questions arise regarding the ability of the government to restrict its citizens’ use of a platform for free expression, despite potential user data concerns. The First Amendment has stood at the core of American principles of individual freedom from its creation, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed the broad scope of that right. Ultimately, any attempts to ban the platform face an uphill battle and some serious criticisms.