TikTokers in Montana are going to war against a new law banning the app across the state. They’re banding together and joining lawsuits against the state, accusing their elected officials of suppressing their speech and upending their livelihoods.
Nobody’s Really Watching Reels
This week, less than 24 hours after Republican Governor Greg Gianforte signed the first of-its-kind bill into law, a group of TikTokers filed a lawsuit against the state’s attorney general seeking to reverse the ban. The video creators are the first in an expected avalanche of legal fights against Montana; they’re seeking to preserve their right to publish on the app and safeguard their online audiences, some of which have taken years to build.
Carly Goddard, a Montana-based TikTok creator and self-described “ranch wife” is one of the creators fighting back against the ban. In an interview with Gizmodo, Goddard said income earned from the app has helped her put food on the table and stay home with her nearly two-year-old son. Goddard has around 95,000 followers and says TikTok has allowed her to triple her family’s income. Now, she says the ban threatens her entire way of life and could force her family to go back to living paycheck to paycheck.
“I feel like there are a lot of people that don’t understand this app,” Goddard said. “Some people think it’s just all about dancing. It’s not. There are young moms like me that just want to be able to stay home and be able to afford groceries and pay their bills.”
Goddard said she was drawn to the short-video platform several years ago after stumbling across a daily lifestyle video blog from another mother. She had just had her own child around three months prior and felt inspired by seeing someone like herself creating videos. It was a dark, difficult period of time for Goddard. Her grandfather had just been convicted of sexually assaulting her when she was 11 years old as well another victim 20 years before. The trial had drained her.
“I kinda just wanted to find my purpose,” Goddard said. “I had no motivation to do anything. I needed something to do.”
Goddard started posting incrementally, sharing short recipe videos and offering users a glimpse into her rural Montana lifestyle. She quickly started attracting followers, which motivated her to commit more time and attention to her videos and share more of her personal story. Goddard said her honest, blog-style videos have resonated particularly well with younger users who look up to her and say they see her as an inspiration for how to be a good mother.
“That’s really inspiring,” she said. “That keeps me going every day.” Goddard said the app helped her find that purpose she was looking for.
Ambika Kumar, the lawsuit’s lead counsel, told Gizmodo. “Montana’s blanket ban prevents our clients, and all Montanans, from engaging in protected speech. We are determined to see that this misguided and invalid law is permanently enjoined.”
Rick Baker, a metalworker and military veteran, is listed on separate, soon-to-be-issued class action lawsuit of small business owners vying to overturn the ban. Baker told Gizmodo he estimates around 60% of his income comes from TikTok leads and sales. He says the ban has sent him into “panic mode” but he said he’s using the lawsuit as a vehicle to fight back.
“It would be a huge hit for me,” Baker said. “I don’t think lawmakers understand the impact this can have on small business.”
What does Montana’s TikTok ban do?
If allowed to take effect on January 1, 2024 , Montana’s TikTok ban would prohibit app stores like Apple’s and Google’s from offering downloads of the products. App stores found in violation of the law could face fines of $10,000 per day from the state’s Department of Justice. TikTok users wouldn’t be subject to fines, and current users could theoretically still continue using the app, though they wouldn’t be able to download any new updates. TikTok declined to comment for this story.
That forced reliance on an older version of the app means users would be barred from downloading security updates or other important safety patches. Users could also potentially sideload the app or use a virtual private network (VPN) to mask their geolocations, but that extra technical effort would likely shut out some users.
Baker told Gizmodo that Montana authorities would have to physically come and delete the app off his phone to prevent him from using it. “I don’t see how they can enforce this,” he said.
“At the end of the day, you may just have more tech-savvy users of TikTok using VPNs to continue accessing the service anyway but with increasingly worse security and privacy protections because they can’t get regular software updates,” Emma Llansó, the Director of the Center For Democracy and Technology’s Free Expression Project, previously told Gizmodo.
Goddard told Gizmodo she cried the first time she heard about Montana’s ban. She and her husband live on a feed lot and were living paycheck to paycheck prior to her success on the app. Her income from TikTok allowed her family a newfound sense of financial stability. That’s all in jeopardy when the ban takes effect. In response, she and her husband have discussed leaving the state altogether.
Goddard dreams of having a second child. Montana’s TikTok ban has put that hope on hold.
“My income has put food on the table and has been able to help us out so much,” she said. “It will just be very hard to go back to how we used to live.”
Lawyers say Montana’s TikTok ban blatantly violates the First Amendment
Supporters of the bill argue it’s necessary because TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, could pose a national security risk. But the lawsuit filed this week claims Montana as a state has no real authority to enact laws attempting to advance US foreign policy goals. The lawsuit also says the ban singles out TikTok amongst a sea of apps that host potentially harmful content and unlawfully restrict users’ own freedom of association. When it comes to regulating online speech, the suit says, lawmakers need to act like a surgeon with a scalpel. This law looks more like a sledgehammer.
“TikTok is where a billion people go to find entertainment, talk politics, build community, express themselves, and, in many cases, make a living,” Kumar, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said.
Montana’s ban, according to the lawsuit, would cause “irreparable harm” to users who have built up large followings on the app. While some creators like Baker already post their content to Instagram and could theoretically convince some of their audience to follow them over to other apps, many would likely slip through the cracks and disappear amid the chaos.
Aside from upending creators’ financial stability, the lawsuit warns the ban could also destroy communities grown on the platform that users rely on to express themselves and discuss serious issues like mental health and suicide prevention. Baker, the veteran and metalworker, previously told Gizmodo that fellow veterans he’s met through the app will call to check up on him if he hasn’t posted a video in a couple days. Their care means a great deal to him, he said, and he doesn’t know where else to find something like it.
Montana readies for battle
Legal experts speaking with Gizmodo said it’s unlikely Montana’s law will be able to survive the coming court cases. “It’s not a constitutional question, it’s a constitutional fact that states cannot do this,” NetChoice general counsel Carl Szabo told Gizmodo. Still, that apparent inevitably isn’t stopping state lawmakers from gearing up for a fight. In a statement, sent to Gizmodo, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen referred to TikTok as a Chinese Communist Party spying tool.” Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for Knudsen said in a separate statement that “we expected a legal challenge and are fully prepared to defend the law.” Flower also suggested, without providing evidence, that TikTok may have some involvement with the lawsuits. Gianforte similarly said the state has an “obligation” to protect Montanans from alleged, but unproven, Chinese spying.
Even if the law is struck down, that’s little comfort to Montana creators who have already spent months operating in a sense of nervous panic, constantly questioning the future of their livelihood. Baker says he’s using this time to encourage other TikTok creators to write to their local representatives and post videos opposing restrictions to the app. He said it’s important for creators to let the world understand the ways bans both state-level and national can impact their daily lives.
“The more people and the more voices that are heard, the better,” Baker said. “Hopefully we can either get this axed out or at least altered to where it’s not a modern-day PATRIOT Act.”