Judge Blocks Novel State-Level TikTok Ban Over First Amendment Concerns

Ruling Deals Blow to Montana’s Unprecedented Move to Outright Bar Viral Video App

A federal judge has temporarily halted a first-of-its-kind law in Montana seeking to outlaw TikTok across the state, concluding the act likely violates free speech protections.

The decision Thursday by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy prevents the novel TikTok prohibition from taking effect January 1st as planned. While officials claimed the restrictions protected consumers, Molloy determined the state legislature seemed plainly more invested in targeting China through the app than addressing concrete cybersecurity threats.

“There is little doubt that Montana’s legislature and Attorney General were more interested in targeting China’s ostensible role in TikTok than with protecting Montana consumers,” Molloy wrote in the ruling. He said state officials failed to demonstrate TikTok poses genuine national security dangers, and that the law carried undertones of “anti-Chinese sentiment.”

TikTok attracts over 150 million monthly active users in the U.S. But the viral video platform has faced nonstop scrutiny from lawmakers convinced its Beijing-based parent ByteDance surrenders data to Chinese authorities or spreads propaganda at their behest. Critics admit no public proof yet exists of either occurring.

The judicial rebuke deals a blow to the first attempt by a state to fully outlaw access to a single app within its borders. It also slows momentum behind copycat efforts as additional Republican-led states eyed similar restrictions. Eighteen states backed Montana’s approach in court.

But Judge Molloy determined federal powers over foreign policy likely prevent states from unliterally banning cyber businesses over purported international threats. He will issue a final ruling after a full trial expected in 2023.

For now, the preliminary injunction buoyed TikTok executives who sued Montana in May to block what they lambasted as illegal speech suppression. Lawyers for the company insisted officials failed to substantiate their security worries. Previous federal bans on downloading TikTok on government devices also crumbled in court.

Yet pressure continues mounting in Washington to restrain TikTok against the backdrop of deteriorating U.S.-China relations. Lawmakers point to Chinese laws compelling companies share data with authorities. They also highlight a ByteDance admission it improperly accessed information on two journalists.

TikTok contends new safeguards keep U.S. user data now stored and managed by Oracle beyond Beijing’s reach. But some China hawks contend the viral app still enables potential industrial espionage. Talks between TikTok and national security officials to avert an outright federal ban remain ongoing.

For now, the potential precedent of states themselves attempting to outlaw apps deemed dangerous by local politicians has been disrupted. Judge Molloy ultimately ruled Montana overstepped its powers while doing little to prove TikTok constitutes an actionable threat. His decision deals a victory to those arguing sweeping app prohibitions go too far in the name of broadly defined cyber defense.

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