Lawsuit over Montana TikTok ban on hold until challenge to federal law is resolved

Posted at 5:59 PM, May 30, 2024

HELENA — After working its way through the legal system for a year, the lawsuit challenging Montana’s TikTok ban is now officially on hold – until courts rule on the federal law dealing with the app.

The case was set for a hearing in a federal appeals court as soon as September, but all the parties – TikTok, a group of Montana-based content creators and Attorney General Austin Knudsen – agreed it didn’t make sense to move forward until the national case gets resolved. They filed a joint motion asking for a stay, and both the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the federal district court agreed.

The Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 419 during their 2023 session. It said TikTok couldn’t operate in Montana, and that app stores couldn’t offer it for download within the state’s borders. Supporters cited concerns that the app might expose Montanans’ data to China. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company headquartered in China, but has denied any claims that it puts data at risk.

Before SB 419 went into effect, TikTok and the group of creators sued, saying the law violated free expression rights under the First Amendment. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy sided with them and issued a preliminary injunction blocking the law.

Knudsen appealed Molloy’s decision to the 9th Circuit. As the parties were submitting their briefs on the appeal, the legal landscape suddenly changed when Congress passed a measure requiring ByteDance to sell TikTok within a year or face a nationwide ban. TikTok immediately challenged that law.

The Montana plaintiffs and the state said the result of that national lawsuit would simplify the legal questions in their case – particularly because one of the issues was whether SB 419 conflicted with federal law.

“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,” they wrote in their joint motion.

With the lawsuit stayed, Molloy’s injunction will remain in place, so SB 419 still won’t be enforced.

The appeals court and the district court both said, once the national case is decided, the parties in the Montana case will have 30 days to file status reports, to determine where to go from there.

The federal appeals court hearing the national case set oral arguments for September.