Arguing that TikTok is a “vital tool” for the press, organizations representing reporters are urging a federal judge to prohibit enforcement of Montana's ban on the app.
“The app has emerged as a key part of the digital public square, hosting conversations on matters of significant public importance, and it enables members of the press to gather information sometimes shared nowhere else,” the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Media Law Resource Center say in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Friday with U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula.
“For working journalists today, TikTok is a vital tool,” the organizations say.
They are weighing in on lawsuit brought by TikTok and several users who are seeking to block a new law that will prohibit app stores from offering the app to people in Montana, and prohibit the use of the app in the state (with some exceptions for law enforcement). The measure doesn't penalize users, but provides for sanctions starting at $10,000 per violation against TikTok and mobile app marketplaces.
Unless blocked, the law will come into effect on January 1 of next year.
Montana lawmakers who passed the bill expressed concerns that TikTok's parent company, the Beijing-based ByteDance, shares data about U.S. users with China. Similar concerns have spurred other states to prohibit use of the app on government-owned devices or public WiFi networks, but Montana is the only state so far to outright ban the app.
In addition to privacy concerns, the Montana legislature also accused TikTok of failing to remove “dangerous content” that allegedly encourages young users to engage in risky activity, such as “throwing objects at moving automobiles,” “inducing unconsciousness through oxygen deprivation,” and “cooking chicken in NyQuil.”
The media advocacy groups say in their court papers that the prohibition violates the First Amendment, arguing the law unconstitutionally singles out TikTok.
The groups argue that much of the “dangerous content” cited by lawmakers as justification for the ban didn't originate on TikTok, are available on other platforms, or “may not represent bona fide trends at all.”
The organizations also say the ban threatens press freedom by prohibiting news gathering and publishing “on an entire platform.”
“Montana’s TikTok ban eliminates the unique benefits the app offers to journalists working to gather and disseminate the news,” the groups write. “That severe restriction invites the highest degree of constitutional skepticism and cannot withstand it.”
They specifically contend that TikTok's short-form video format “makes it a valuable source of firsthand recordings of breaking news events.”
Among other examples, they note that the March 3 New Yorker article “Watching the World’s 'First TikTok War'” credited the app with offering some of the first videos of Russia's invasion of the Ukraine.
The groups add that the app's young-skewing audience “provides reporters a unique window into the views and lives of younger Americans."
“Without access to a platform where millions of young people are expressing themselves, members of the press would be handicapped in their effort to understand the stories of that share of the public,” the organizations write.