Judge Blocks Trump’s WeChat Download Ban, Cites First Amendment Concerns

WeChat serves as a virtual public square for the Chinese-speaking community in the U.S and is “their only means of communication,” Judge Laurel Beeler rules

Last Updated: September 20, 2020 @ 11:23 AM

A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Trump Administration’s attempts to ban downloads of the Chinese-owned social media app WeChat on Apple and Google, citing First Amendment concerns.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler said that WeChat “serves as a virtual public square for the Chinese-speaking and Chinese-American community in the United States and is (as a practical matter) their only means of communication.” She added in her written ruling dated Saturday and released early Sunday that government attempts to ban the service on app stores and severely limit functions for existing users “forecloses meaningful access to communication in their community and thereby operates as a prior restraint on their right to free speech.”

The Trump Administration has argued that WeChat, which is owned by Chinese company Tencent, is a national security risk because the Chinese government can use the app to disseminate propaganda and steal private data from users.

Judge Beeler acknowledged that there are legitimate national security concerns, but also said that the U.S. Department of Commerce “has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns. And, as the plaintiffs point out, there are obvious alternatives to a complete ban, such as barring WeChat from government devices, as Australia has done, or taking other steps to address data security.”

Beeler’s ruling comes after the Trump administration announced a delay on their plans to ban the popular social media app TikTok after Trump agreed “in concept” to a proposed bid by Oracle to buy U.S. operations of the app from current owner ByteDance, creating a new entity called TikTokGlobal that will be based in the United States.

But this ruling will impact the decision to allow TikTok to continue operating, according to an individual with knowledge of the discussion. A great deal of confusion continues to surround the deal to allow Oracle and Walmart to buy a minority stake in TikTok, and within the White House debate continues over whether this resolves the core security issue over China’s control of the app.

A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.