TikTok users file lawsuit to block Montana ban

FILE PHOTO: TikTok logo is displayed on the smartphone while standing on the U.S. flag in this illustration

By David Shepardson

(Reuters) -Five TikTok users in Montana who create content posted on the short-video app filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to block the state's new ban on the Chinese-owned platform.

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte on Wednesday signed legislation to ban TikTok in the state, effective Jan. 1. The five users seek to block the law, which makes it unlawful for the app stores of Alphabet Inc's Google and Apple Inc to offer TikTok within the state.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Montana late on Wednesday, names the state's attorney general, Austin Knudsen, who is charged with enforcing the law.

The TikTok users argue the state seeks to "exercise powers over national security that Montana does not have and to ban speech Montana may not suppress." The suit said users believe the law violates their First Amendment rights.

"Montana can no more ban its residents from viewing or posting to TikTok than it could ban the Wall Street Journal because of who owns it or the ideas it publishes," the lawsuit said.

Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for Knudsen, said the state was ready for lawsuits. "We expected a legal challenge and are fully prepared to defend the law," she said.

TikTok, which is owned by China's ByteDance, has faced growing calls from U.S. lawmakers and state officials to ban the app nationwide over concerns about potential Chinese government influence over the platform.

According to the lawsuit, the five plaintiffs, all Montana residents, include a designer of sustainable swimwear who uses TikTok to promote her company and engage with customers; a former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who uses TikTok to connect with other veterans; a rancher who uses TikTok to share content about her outdoor adventures; a student who is studying applied human physiology and shares content about her outdoor adventures; and a man who shares humorous videos on TikTok and earns revenue from the content he posts.

On Wednesday, following the governor's signing of the law, Knudsen, who, like Gianforte, is a Republican, called TikTok "a Chinese Communist Party spying tool that poses a threat to every Montanan."

TikTok on Wednesday, shortly after the governor signed the bill, said Montana's ban "infringes on the First Amendment rights of the people of Montana by unlawfully banning TikTok," and said it will "continue working to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana."

Gianforte said the bill will further "our shared priority to protect Montanans from Chinese Communist Party surveillance."

TikTok has repeatedly denied that it has ever shared data with the Chinese government and has said the company would not do so if asked.

The suit is assigned to Judge Donald Molloy, who was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1995.

Montana, which has a population of just over 1 million people, said TikTok could face fines for each violation and additional fines of $10,000 per day if it violates the ban.

An attempt by former President Donald Trump to ban new downloads of TikTok and WeChat through a Commerce Department order in 2020 was blocked by multiple courts and never took effect.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler and Anna Driver)