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The TikTok logo is displayed on signage outside TikTok social media app company offices in Culver City, California, on March 16, 2023.
A federal judge on Thursday temporarily halted Montana’s groundbreaking statewide TikTok ban, which was set to go into effect at the start of 2024, pending a trial on the matter.
In an order, US District Judge Donald Molloy said that despite the state government’s attempt to defend the law, “the current record leaves 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 also said that TikTok had shown that the law likely violated the First Amendment.
“In shutting off TikTok, the Legislature has both harmed User Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights and cut off a stream of income on which many rely. Thus, Plaintiffs have established a likelihood of irreparable harm,” Molloy wrote.
Molloy’s order is the latest blow to state critics of a wildly popular app with 150 million users in the United States alone. Thursday’s decision not only marks a setback for Montana policymakers who had hoped to prohibit TikTok on all personal devices within the state but also sends a signal to others that may be considering similar proposals.
In a statement, Emilee Cantrell, a deputy communications director at Montana’s attorney general’s office, said the halt was just a “preliminary decision.”
“The judge indicated several times that the analysis could change as the case proceeds and the State has the opportunity to present a full factual record. We look forward to presenting the complete legal argument to defend the law that protects Montanans from the Chinese Communist Party obtaining and using their data,” Cantrell said.
Montana’s governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The law, which was set to be the first of its kind in the nation, prohibited the app from operating within state lines, outlining potential fines of $10,000 per day for violators. It was signed into law by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte in May, who said the law was necessary to protect Montantans’ personal data “from the Chinese Communist Party.”
Montana’s law was challenged by TikTok and a group of the app’s content creators, who argued, in part, that the ban infringes on their First Amendment rights.
The halt comes as lawmakers grapple with TikTok’s ties to China. The social media app is owned by China-based ByteDance. Many US officials have expressed fears that the Chinese government could potentially access US data via TikTok for spying purposes, though there is so far no evidence that the Chinese government has ever accessed the personal information of US-based TikTok users.
The legal battle has been closely watched because it is viewed as a bellwether for TikTok’s future in the United States, where dozens of states and the US government have already banned the app on official devices but have so far refrained from blocking the app on private devices.
Other state governments have attempted their own methods to curb TikTok’s widespread use. On Thursday, another judge dismissed a lawsuit against TikTok filed by the state of Indiana, accusing the company of making false claims about the safety of user data and age-appropriate content. The judge in that case, Indiana state judge Jennifer DeGroote, said the court “lacks personal jurisdiction” over TikTok, according to court documents.
Montana’s attempted ban marked the furthest step yet by a state government to restrict TikTok over perceived security concerns.
At an October hearing, Molloy slammed Montana’s legislation as being driven by “paternalistic” views of social media users, suggesting lawmakers could have taken other steps short of an attempted ban to achieve their goals.
CNN’s Samantha Murphy Kelly contributed to reporting.