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TikTok is funding Montana users’ lawsuit against the ban

When five TikTok creators in Montana filed a lawsuit last month, saying the state’s new ban on the app violated their First Amendment rights and exceeded the government’s legal authority, it sparked a grassroots effort. It seemed

One relevant fact that the creators and TikTok didn’t mention: The company is funding their case.

Popular video service for over a month distracted Questions about its involvement in the lawsuit. When the case was filed, TikTok said it was considering whether to file a separate case – a step The company formed up several days later.

This week, TikTok spokeswoman Jodi Seth admitted it was paying for a lawsuit from users after two of them told the New York Times about the company’s involvement.

“Many creators have expressed great concern privately and publicly about the potential impact of the Montana law on their livelihoods,” Ms. Seth said. “We support our creators in fighting for their constitutional rights.”

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

TikTok’s funding shows how important its users in Montana are to the company’s efforts to deal with the ban, which is set to take effect on January 1. Governor Greg Gianforte, a Republican, signed the bill Last month, citing concerns that TikTok, owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, could expose private user data to the Beijing government. TikTok says it has never been asked or provided US user data to Beijing.

The company is relying on a group of Montana residents to show how the ban will harm users rather than protect them. The strategy in Montana is the same as in 2020 by President Donald J. The ban was implemented after Trump issued an executive order barring TikTok’s operations in the United States. Even at the time, TikTok secretly funded a lawsuit brought by creators, The Wall Street Journal informed of, and the action lifted the ban. TikTok is not required to disclose the funding of its affairs.

TikTok has tried to expose its users to lawmakers and in marketing, putting faces on the app in Montana and nationally as calls for a ban mounted since November. The company recently engaged creators in the “TikTok Sparks Good” campaign. Tiktok stars were flown to Capitol Hill in March when its chief executive testified before Congress.

Stephen Gilers said, “From a public relations perspective, lawyers may think it works better if the public sees creators as completely independent of TikTok, as small people who can be harmed rather than as agents or messengers of TikTok.” Used to be.” Emeritus Professor of Legal Ethics at New York University School of Law.

He added that filing separate lawsuits was strategically good for the company, as creators’ case may be stronger than TikTok’s complaint “because creators can claim a personal First Amendment interest in challenging the Montana law.” “

Some of the Montana creators named in the lawsuit declined to talk about how they were brought into the effort. But two others discussed being contacted by TikTok’s lawyers, including Heather DiRoko, a 36-year-old mother of three in Bozeman who has 200,000 followers on the app.

Ms. Diroko’s TikTok account often features comedic videos in which she talks about her past experiences as a woman in the Marines. She took a more serious stance in March after learning about Montana’s bill, urging other residents to use the #MTlovesTikTok hashtag in videos and to call the governor’s office to voice their opposition. A few weeks later, he posted a video criticizing how lawmakers had questioned the chief executive of TikTok at a March congressional hearing.

Lawyers for TikTok reached out to Ms. Dirocco in April to see if she was interested in becoming a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the bill. She said that after learning she would not have to pay Davis Wright Tremaine, the law firm leading the challenge, and reading how the firm represented TikTok creators who successfully challenged the federal ban in 2020, she was curious. Was.

Ms. Diroko said, “I was like, you know, I’d love to help with this because I already don’t like it, I’m already advocating for it on my channel.” “I would love to be a part of this so that it goes beyond what I can make it do.”

The firm said it had contacted several creators who expressed concerns about the Montana law and told them that if they wanted to fight the ban, TikTok would help file and pay for the lawsuit.,

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

The lawsuit has thrown the creators into the national spotlight and faced questions about why they are standing up to TikTok. All five said they liked the app. While most people make some money from it, Alice Held, a 25-year-old college student in Missoula who has 217,000 followers on TikTok, said she joined the effort despite earning “at most, $15 a month” from video views.

“When I think about all of our backgrounds, they chose a very diverse range of plaintiffs – a veteran, a business owner, a rancher who lives in rural Montana,” Ms. Held said. “The young person’s lack of student attitude is probably the role I play in The Five of Us.”

Ms Held said she was motivated to join the lawsuit because of her belief in freedom of expression and over-representation of concerns about the Chinese government’s access to TikTok data. He said, “When people ask what my stake is, it goes back to First Amendment rights and free speech and a desire to protect it for Montanans.”

Another plaintiff, Samantha Alario, who lives in Missoula, said the platform enabled her to reach customers for her swimwear brand with whom she would not be able to connect on sites like Facebook and Instagram. He said the group represents “normal, everyday people” who use the app.

Ms Alario, 35, said, “We are not TikTok stars.” “We went into the lion’s den about a week before TikTok decided to come in and back us on this, because we see how important this is.”

Jameel Jaffar, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, said the users’ lawsuit has focused on how Montana’s ban will harm Americans and he hopes the courts will strike it down.

“TikTok is an American company and has First Amendment rights, but there has been rhetoric in Montana and the federal government that TikTok’s ties to China mean it is no ordinary First Amendment actor,” Mr. Jaffer said.

“The lawsuit really emphasizes that this isn’t just about TikTok’s rights, let alone ByteDance’s rights,” he added. “This is about the rights of TikTok’s users, including its US users, and I think it’s a really important issue.”

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