TikTok Is Funding Montana Users’ Suit Against Ban

Five Montana TikTok creators filed a lawsuit last month, alleging the state’s new ban on the app violates First Amendment rights and goes far beyond the government’s legal authority, but it’s grassroots. seemed to be an effort.

One related fact not mentioned by creators and TikTok is that the company is funding lawsuits.

For more than a month, the popular video service has dodged questions about its involvement in the lawsuit. When the lawsuit was filed, TikTok said it was considering whether to file another lawsuit, but the company took action days later.

This week, TikTok spokeswoman Jody Seth confirmed that TikTok paid legal fees for two users after they told The New York Times about the company’s involvement.

“Many creators have expressed significant public and private concerns about the potential impact of Montana law on their lives,” says Seth. “We support creators fighting for their constitutional rights.”

While TikTok is funding the lawsuit, the creators said the company did not directly compensate them for their role.

TikTok’s fundraising shows how Montana users are central to the company’s efforts to combat the ban, which is set to go into effect Jan. 1. Republican Governor Greg Gianforte said last month that TikTok, which is owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, could expose users’ personal data to the Beijing government. TikTok says it has never been asked to provide U.S. user data to the Chinese government, nor has it been provided.

The company relies on a group of Montana residents to show how the ban will hurt users rather than protect them. Montana’s strategy is similar to that deployed in 2020 after President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order banning TikTok from operating in the United States.Back then, TikTok secretly funded lawsuits filed by creators, The Wall Street Journal report, and that action circumvented the ban. TikTok is under no obligation to disclose its funding of lawsuits.

Amid mounting calls for a ban since November, TikTok has emphasized its users in front of lawmakers and in marketing, trying to get people to show up on the app in Montana and across the country. The company featured creators in its recent “TikTok Sparks Good” campaign and took TikTok stars to the Capitol when its chief executive testified before Congress in March.

“From a public relations standpoint, lawyers believe that the public is better off viewing creators as little people who are completely independent of TikTok and who are being harmed, rather than as TikTok’s agents and emissaries. They may think it works,” said Steven Gillers. Professor Emeritus of Legal Ethics at New York University School of Law.

He said creators’ lawsuits could be stronger than TikTok’s because “creators can assert their personal interests under the First Amendment by challenging Montana law.” He said it was strategically sound for the company to sue separately.

Some of the Montana creators named in the lawsuit have refused to discuss how they got involved in the effort. However, two others have discussed being contacted by a TikTok lawyer, including Heather DiRocco, 36, a Bozeman-based mother of three who has 200,000 followers on the app. be

DiRocco’s TikTok account often includes comedy videos about her past experiences as a Marine Corps woman. After she learned about the Montana bill in March, she took a more serious stance, urging other residents to use the #MTlovesTikTok hashtag in her videos and call the governor’s office to voice their opposition. appealed to speak up. A few weeks later, she posted a video criticizing how lawmakers criticized TikTok’s chief executive during a congressional hearing in March.

TikTok’s attorneys contacted DiRocco in April to ask if she would be interested in becoming a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the bill. Knowing she would no longer have to pay Davis Wright-Tremaine, the law firm leading the challenge, the firm launched successful TikTok creators in 2020 to challenge the federal ban. He said he was intrigued after reading how it was represented.

“I was very keen to cooperate on this matter because I already don’t like it and have already claimed it on my channel,” DiRocco said. “I would love to participate so that I can achieve more than I can.”

The company said it has reached out to a number of creators who have expressed concerns about Montana law and told them that if they want to fight the ban, TikTok will help them file lawsuits and pay their costs..

“The fact that TikTok is paying legal fees is irrelevant to the legal merits of this case,” said Ambika Kumar, one of the company’s lawyers.

The creators who took part in the lawsuit have received national attention and are facing questions about why they defend TikTok. All five said they liked the app. Most people make money from it, but Alice Held, a 25-year-old college student in Missoula with 217,000 followers on TikTok, makes “no more than $15 a month” from watching her videos. Nonetheless, he said he participated in the effort.

“Given all our backgrounds, they chose a pretty diverse set of plaintiffs: veterans, business owners, ranchers in rural Montana,” Held said. “The perspective of a student who cuts young people is probably a role among the five of us.”

Held said her motivation for joining the lawsuit was her belief in free speech and her view that concerns over the Chinese government’s access to TikTok data were exaggerated. “When people ask me what my interests are, it goes back to First Amendment rights and free speech and wanting to protect them for Montana people,” she said.

Another Missoula-based plaintiff, Samantha Arario, said the platform helped her reach customers of the swimwear brand that she could not reach on sites like Facebook and Instagram. She said the group represents “ordinary, everyday people” who use the app.

“We are not TikTok stars,” said Arario, 35. “For almost a full week we were walking into a lion’s den until TikTok decided to help us on this issue because we understand how important this is. because there is.”

Jameel Jafar, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, said the users’ lawsuit focused on how Montana’s ban would harm Americans, and that the court would He said he hopes to lift the ban.

“While TikTok has First Amendment rights as a US company, Montana and the federal government suggest that TikTok’s ties to China are not the usual First Amendment subject. There is rhetoric,” Jafar said.

The lawsuit “really underscores that this is not just about TikTok’s rights, much less about ByteDance’s rights,” he added. “I think this is a very important point because it concerns the rights of TikTok users, including US users.”

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