US judge blocks Montana from banning TikTok use in state

Person holds a smartphone with Tik Tok logo displayed in this picture illustration
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

By David Shepardson

(Reuters) -A U.S. judge late on Thursday blocked Montana's first-of-its kind state ban on the use of short-video sharing app TikTok from taking effect on Jan. 1, saying it violated the free speech rights of users.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy issued a preliminary injunction to block the ban on the Chinese-owned app, saying the state ban "violates the Constitution in more ways than one" and "oversteps state power."

TikTok, owned by China's ByteDance, sued Montana in May, seeking to block the U.S. state ban on several grounds, arguing that it violates the First Amendment free speech rights of the company and users.

TikTok users in Montana also filed suit to block the ban approved by the state legislature which cited concerns about the personal data of Montana users and potential Chinese spying.

TikTok said it was pleased the judge "rejected this unconstitutional law and 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, which defended the ban, noted the ruling was preliminary and said "the analysis could change as the case proceeds."

Knudsen's office added it was considering its next steps and 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."

TikTok said in earlier court filings it "has not shared, and would not share, U.S. user data with the Chinese government, and has taken substantial measures to protect the privacy and security of TikTok users."

Molloy, who was appointed to the bench by Democratic President Bill Clinton, found merit in numerous arguments raised by TikTok and referenced what he termed "the pervasive undertone of anti-Chinese sentiment that permeates" the state's legal case and legislation.

Montana could have imposed fines of $10,000 for each violation by TikTok in the state but the now blocked state law did not impose penalties on individual TikTok users.

Molloy said Montana sought to exercise foreign policy authority held by the federal government and the state's action was too sweeping.

TikTok has faced efforts by some in Congress to ban the app or give the Biden administration powers to impose restrictions or bar foreign-owned apps, but those efforts have stalled.

Many states and the U.S. government have barred TikTok on government-owned devices, but only Montana has sought to completely bar the app's use.

Former President Donald Trump in 2020 sought to bar new downloads of TikTok and Chinese-owned WeChat, but a series of court decisions blocked the effective ban from taking effect.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese and Sonali Paul)