Lawsuit Over Montana’s TikTok Ban Paused Pending Federal Law Challenge Resolution

After navigating the legal system for a year, the lawsuit challenging Montana’s TikTok ban is now officially on hold until courts resolve the federal law concerning the app. Originally scheduled for a federal appeals court hearing in September, the case involves TikTok, a group of Montana-based content creators, and Attorney General Austin Knudsen. All parties agreed that it made sense to pause proceedings until the national case is resolved. They filed a joint motion requesting a stay, which the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the federal district court approved.

The Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 419 during the 2023 session, which prohibited TikTok from operating in Montana and banned app stores from offering it for download within the state. Supporters of the bill cited concerns over potential exposure of Montanans’ data to China, given that TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a China-based company. The proponents of the bill expressed fears about privacy and national security, arguing that Chinese laws could compel ByteDance to share data with the Chinese government. However, TikTok has consistently denied these allegations, emphasizing its commitment to user privacy and data security.

Before SB 419 could take effect, TikTok and a group of content creators sued, arguing that the law violated their First Amendment rights to free expression. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy agreed with the plaintiffs and issued a preliminary injunction blocking the law. In his ruling, Molloy emphasized the importance of free speech and highlighted the lack of concrete evidence supporting the claims against TikTok. Following this decision, Attorney General Austin Knudsen appealed to the 9th Circuit.

While the appeal was in progress, the legal landscape shifted significantly when Congress passed a measure requiring ByteDance to sell TikTok within a year or face a nationwide ban. This move by Congress introduced a new dimension to the legal battle, with implications for both the federal and state-level cases. TikTok immediately challenged the new federal law, arguing that it was an overreach and violated due process.

The Montana plaintiffs and the state contended that the outcome of the national lawsuit would simplify the legal questions in their case, particularly concerning whether SB 419 conflicted with federal law. In their joint motion, they wrote, “The petition currently pending before the D.C. Circuit will clarify the scope of the federal law in this area bearing upon this Court’s preemption analysis, in addition to addressing other matters bearing upon this case.”

With the lawsuit on hold, Molloy’s injunction remains in place, preventing the enforcement of SB 419. This means TikTok will continue to be available in Montana for the foreseeable future. Both the appeals court and the district court stipulated that once the national case is resolved, the parties in the Montana case will have 30 days to file status reports “to determine where to go from there.”

The TikTok ban in Montana has sparked a broader debate about digital privacy, data security, and the balance between national security and individual freedoms. Supporters of the ban argue that the potential risks posed by foreign-owned apps necessitate stringent measures, while opponents view the ban as an overreach that infringes on free speech and sets a concerning precedent.

Conversely, opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argue that the ban is both unconstitutional and impractical. “Banning a widely-used platform like TikTok infringes on free speech rights and sets a dangerous precedent for government overreach in digital spaces,” said a spokesperson for the ACLU. They also point out that such bans can be circumvented by tech-savvy users, reducing the effectiveness of the legislation.

The outcome of the federal case will likely have significant implications not just for Montana, but for the national conversation around digital privacy and the regulation of tech companies. As the courts deliberate, the temporary stay allows both sides to prepare for the potential next steps, depending on the resolution of the broader federal case.

In the meantime, Montanans continue to use TikTok, while the legal battles over its future unfold. The stay ensures that for now, at least, the app remains a part of everyday life in the state, amidst a backdrop of ongoing legal and political debates.


By: Montana Newsroom staff