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Eight TikTok creators sue U.S. government over potential ban

The lawsuit argues the new law threatens free expression.
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Eight TikTok creators sued the U.S. government on Tuesday, arguing that a new law forcing a sale or ban of the popular video-sharing app violates their First Amendment rights.

The law “bans an entire medium of communication and all the speech communicated through that medium, even though, at the very least, the vast majority of that speech is protected,” stated the lawsuit.

The 33-page complaint, first reported by The Washington Post, comes a week after TikTok filed its own lawsuit against the federal government, also citing constitutional concerns over free speech. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., due to a provision in the law that grants the court “exclusive jurisdiction” for any legal challenge to it.

Signed into law last month by President Joe Biden, the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act — pushed forward with bipartisan support after years of congressional scrutiny against TikTok — would ban the app from the U.S. market if its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, does not divest it.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday describes TikTok as a critical “part of American life.” 

The creators who are suing all hail from different states and backgrounds. All eight “have found their voices, amassed significant audiences, made new friends, and encountered new and different ways of thinking—all because of TikTok’s novel way of hosting, curating, and disseminating speech,” the lawsuit states.

The group includes Brian Firebaugh, a rancher in rural Texas; Chloe Joy Sexton, a Tennessee baker who owns a cookie business; Talia Cadet, a D.C.-area based book reviewer; Timothy Martin, a college football coach in North Dakota; Kiera Spann, a political activist in North Carolina; Paul Tran, a skin care brand founder in Georgia; Topher Townsend, a Mississippi-based rapper; and Steven King, a comedy creator in Arizona.

The ban “threatens to deprive them, and the rest of the country, of this distinctive means of expression and communication,” according to the suit.

The creators, many who have posted videos vocalizing their concerns, suggest a TikTok ban could also threaten their livelihood, given that they've built large communities on the platform. The lawsuit states that all of the plaintiffs “have tried using other social media apps, with far less success.”   

Sexton, for example, began making videos on TikTok after losing her job in 2020 and now has more than 2.2 million followers, according to the lawsuit. She launched a cookie company and published a cookbook as a result of her success on the app. 

“Losing the platform would be losing not only my income but my most effective means of connecting with people around the world,” she said in a statement. “I’m proud to be part of this lawsuit and to stand up for everyone who counts on TikTok like I do.”

TikTok, which boasts 170 million American users, has been under scrutiny by lawmakers for several years. Many supporters of the law have warned that the platform is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and is a national security threat to the United States. 

But the platform has pushed back — in its lawsuit, TikTok argued that invoking national security concerns is not a sufficient reason for restricting free speech, and that the burden is on the federal government to prove that this restriction is warranted. It has not met that burden, the lawsuit stated.

Tuesday’s lawsuit described the aim of the ban as “content-based, viewpoint-based, and speaker-based,” citing multiple instances of U.S. congressional members suggesting without evidence that TikTok disseminates Chinese government propaganda or promotes “anti-American” and “anti-Israel” messaging.

The Justice Department defended the legislation.

“This legislation addresses critical national security concerns in a manner that is consistent with the First Amendment and other constitutional limitations,” a Justice Department spokesperson said in a statement. “We look forward to defending the legislation in court.”

When asked for comment on the new legal action being taken by the eight creators, a spokesperson for TikTok directed NBC News to the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which is representing the group. 

The firm has previously represented TikTok creators who have fought against proposed legislation involving the platform. After Montana became the first state to issue a TikTok ban last year, five content creators brought a suit against the state. A federal judge blocked the ban, saying it “violates the Constitution in more ways than one.”

In 2020, the law firm also represented three creators who sued the U.S. government over then-President Donald Trump’s executive order banning TikTok, which resulted in a federal judge blocking Trump’s ban.

TikTok financed the plaintiffs’ attorney fees in the Montana case and will do so again in this latest federal case, according to a spokesperson for Davis Wright Tremaine.

“Our clients rely on TikTok to express themselves, learn, and find community. They hope to vindicate not only their First Amendment rights, but the rights of the other approximately 170 million Americans who also use TikTok,” Ambika Kumar, the lead attorney on the case, said in an email statement. “The ban is a pernicious attack on free speech that is contrary to the nation’s founding principles.”