The WeChat app is used by millions of Chinese-Americans to keep in touch with family and friends in the US and China © AP

A coalition of WeChat users in the US sued the Trump administration on Friday, challenging its ban of the messaging app, which they claimed had become an essential digital service for millions of Chinese-Americans.

The complaint, filed in the federal court in San Francisco, claimed the ban breached users’ free speech rights under the First Amendment, as well as being targeted narrowly at a racial group and overstepping the president’s national emergency powers.

Earlier this month Donald Trump turned his sights on the widely used messaging app, which is owned by Chinese tech group Tencent, in an executive order that gave American companies and individuals 45 days to halt “transactions” with the app. The action was made at the same time as a similar order against social video app TikTok, though the latter was later extended to 90 days.

Shenzhen-based Tencent, WeChat’s owner, argued last week that Mr Trump’s order would not affect the app’s Chinese version, Weixin, and therefore would have a minimal impact on the company.

However, the US WeChat Users Alliance, the lead plaintiff in the case, claimed that it would hit Chinese-speaking users in the US. The ban had been “issued in the midst of the 2020 election cycle, during a time when President Trump has made numerous anti-Chinese statements that have contributed to and incited racial animus against persons of Chinese descent — all outside of the national security context”, according to the lawsuit.

Gang Yuan, a New York-based lawyer and one of the founders of the alliance, said that users should be free to decide what services they use. “You can tell us this app is risky, that it might have information security issues and that you should use it cautiously or not at all,” said Mr Yuan. “But you can’t tell us you have to delete it entirely.”

The lawsuit claimed that most users of messaging apps were well aware of the “dragnet surveillance of digital communications” undertaken by national governments, including the US, and still choose to use them — showing that they were conversant with the risks.

Michael Bien, a San Francisco-based lawyer handling the case, said that the Supreme Court found in a separate case that social media are “places of public assembly”, adding weight to the First Amendment claim.

The suit also claims that, by leaving unclear exactly what interactions with WeChat were covered, the executive order breaches the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees due process. Mr Yuan, and other lawyers, said it could include downloading the app and sending messages through it. The commerce department is in the process of interpreting and enforcing the rules.

With Beijing censoring most foreign-operated social media apps, there is a small pool of apps that can operate in and outside of China. WeChat is used widely by the Chinese diaspora and for others doing business or staying in touch with friends in China. Mr Yuan said Tencent was not involved in the lawsuit.

Mr Bien said the plaintiffs were hoping next week to get an injunction from the court that would hold back the government from implementing the law while the case is decided.

“When the president declares a national emergency and uses the word national security — we’re fighting an uphill battle, I have to admit that, because the courts are very deferential on that,” said Mr Bien.

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