Montana AG asks court to reject TikTok challenge to state ban

By David Shepardson

(Reuters) – Montana’s attorney general asked a U.S. judge to uphold a first-of-its kind state ban on the use of short video sharing app TikTok before it takes effect on Jan. 1.

TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance, sued in May seeking to block the first-of-its-kind U.S. state ban on several grounds, arguing that it violates the First Amendment free speech rights of the company and users. A separate lawsuit has been filed by TikTok users in Montana.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican, said Monday the state legislature and governor “did the right thing in prohibiting TikTok from operating in Montana as long as it is under the control of a foreign adversary.”

Knudsen said in a legal filing that Montana can ban harmful products, saying it does not violate free speech rights.

“Were it otherwise, Montana would be powerless to ban a cancer-causing radio merely because that radio also transmitted protected speech, or to ban sports-betting apps merely because those apps also shared informative videos teaching their users the intricacies of sports gambling,” he wrote in the filing late Friday. “The targeted harms — preventing cancer, illegal gambling, or data-gathering by a hostile foreign state — are inherently nonexpressive.”

A hearing on TikTok’s request for a preliminary injunction is set for Oct. 12.

TikTok, which is used by more than 150 million Americans, has faced growing calls from U.S. lawmakers for a nationwide ban over concerns about possible Chinese government influence.

TikTok, which did not immediately comment Monday, says 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.”

Montana could impose fines of $10,000 for each violation by TikTok. The law does not impose penalties on individual TikTok users.

TikTok estimates 380,000 people in Montana use the video service, or more than a third of the state’s 1.1 million people.

Then-President Donald Trump in 2020 sought to bar new downloads of TikTok and another Chinese-owned app, WeChat, a unit of Tencent, but a series of court decisions blocked bans from taking effect. Some in Congress want to bolster the Biden administration’s legal tools to block TikTok, but that effort has stalled.

“TikTok’s apparent position is it cannot be regulated — by anyone,” Knudsen wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union this month called TikTok’s ban unconstitutional and “a direct restriction on protected expression and association.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)