US judge blocks Montana TikTok ban on free speech grounds

A US judge has blocked Montana’s first-of-its-kind ban on social media app TikTok on the grounds of free speech.

Late on Thursday night, US District Judge Donald Molloy issued a preliminary injunction to block the ban, stating that the state’s actions "violates the Constitution in more ways than one" and "oversteps state power."

TikTok has campaigned against the ban, arguing that it violates the First Amendment free speech rights of both the company and its users. Local TikTok users have also filed to block the ban.

A spokesperson for TikTok said that the company was pleased the judge had "rejected this unconstitutional law” and said that “hundreds of thousands of Montanans can continue to express themselves, earn a living, and find community on TikTok."

A spokesperson for Montana state attorney general Austin Knudsen's office, who has championed the ban, said “the analysis could change as the case proceeds,” and that the office looks forward "to presenting the complete legal argument to defend the law that protects Montanans from the Chinese Communist Party obtaining and using their data."

The deeply Republican Montana state legislature in May signed a measure into law which, from 1 January 2024, would block downloads of TikTok in the state and fine any entity that “offered the ability” to access the service – including TikTok itself and app store operators like Google and Apple – $10,000 per day.

The state justified the ban based on the argument that the Chinese government could gain access to user information from TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company ByteDance. ByteDance has repeatedly refuted these allegations and said it has moved US user data to servers based within the country.

The judge in the case, an appointee of former Democratic president Bill Clinton, highlighted "the pervasive undertone of anti-Chinese sentiment that permeates" the state’s case, and said that Montana is attempting to exercise foreign policy authority held by the federal government.

The ruling concluded that the state’s action was too sweeping. He wrote that “the extent to which China controls TikTok, and has access to its users’ data, forms the heart of this controversy,” ultimately stating that the state failed to provide evidence of the “allegedly harmful data practices.”

Molloy faces pressure from 18 attorneys generals from mostly Republican-led states who are backing the ban and have asked the judge to let it be implemented.

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