In March, Patrick Ryan left his position of nine years at Google to take a job as a technical program manager at TikTok. Five months later, Ryan is preparing to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration, fighting for his right to keep that job.
On Tuesday night, Ryan launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a legal battle over the Trump administration's recent executive order, which prohibits "any transaction by any person" with TikTok owner ByteDance beginning Sept. 20. Ryan, who describes himself as a "recovering lawyer," argues that such an order would prohibit his employer from paying him and more than 1,400 other TikTok U.S. employees, thereby violating his constitutional right to due process.
"I have to take care of my family obligations, and I work with people, and I'm hiring people that I feel a sense of responsibility for," Ryan told Protocol. He said the idea that the entire company, not just the app, would get shut down was "not a scenario I anticipated."
When President Trump first announced his public plans to shut down TikTok, Ryan said, he and other staffers assumed that a ban — if indeed there was a ban — would only affect the app itself. It would be an undesirable outcome, but Ryan figured it would still enable employees to remain on the payroll while TikTok's leadership plotted their next move, which could include a sale to Microsoft. The company has announced its interest in buying TikTok pending a security review. In India, where the app is currently banned along with other Chinese apps, TikTok's 2,000 employees are still getting paid.
But as soon as he read the executive order, Ryan said he understood it could have more far-reaching implications for TikTok's U.S. employees, many of whom just started at the company thanks to a recent hiring spree, during which the company nearly tripled its U.S. footprint in a matter of months. Ryan said he began talking with his colleagues, including those on high skilled H-1B visas, whose ability to stay in the country is contingent on their employment. "I'm very concerned about what my colleagues are facing," Ryan said. "It's a real existential problem for them."
So, after informing TikTok and against the advice of his own friends and family, Ryan said he decided to pursue a case and began working with his friend Mike Godwin, a prominent attorney who's worked at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Wikimedia Foundation, and is best known for coining the eponymous internet adage Godwin's law.
Godwin told Protocol that he and Ryan's other lawyers at the firm Blackstone Law are still working out their case, but that their primary claim addresses the fact that the executive order would effectively take TikTok employees' property — in this case, their paychecks — without due process. "Due process requires that everyone with standing to make a claim gets a chance to be heard before their interest gets taken away," Godwin said.
TikTok's head of communications Josh Gartner said the company has "no involvement with and [is] not coordinating on" Ryan's case, which he's undertaken outside of work. "We respect the rights of employees to engage in concerted activity to seek due process of law," Ryan said.
In the company's public statement on the executive order, it made a similar claim about the lack of due process and said it would also "pursue all remedies" including through the U.S. courts. "We are shocked by the recent executive order, which was issued without any due process," the statement reads. "For nearly a year, we have sought to engage with the U.S. government in good faith to provide a constructive solution to the concerns that have been expressed. What we encountered instead was that the administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses."
It's unclear how Ryan's argument — or TikTok's — would be balanced against the right of the president of the United States to act in what he claims are the national security interests of the country. In the order, the president invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and, in doing so, assumed expansive powers to prohibit transactions with TikTok and ByteDance.
According to James Andrew Lewis, director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, challenges to the IEEPA rarely work. He called Ryan's approach "delusional."
"The courts usually defer to the executive branch on matters of national security," Lewis said. "In any case, any ban doesn't go into effect for another five weeks, so they haven't actually been prevented from being paid. Even if you found a judge who didn't like Trump, the [Department of Justice] would appeal and win at the next level up."
Lewis said that if TikTok does, in fact, sue, it will likely be on First Amendment grounds, "not this."
Godwin acknowledged that the case is "not a sure thing" but argued that it's not a "crazy idea," either. "There's never been a case quite like this before," Godwin said.
The GoFundMe page is seeking to raise $30,000, and in less than two days, it's already raised more than $9,000. Some of that, Ryan said, comes from TikTok employees.
The secretary of commerce still has time to specify what, exactly, the order means by "transactions," and could very well exempt payroll from that list. But in the meantime, Godwin said, TikTok employees are wracked by uncertainty. "It's been a bit of a rollercoaster, and it's been astonishingly stressful for him and other employees," he said.
Ryan, for one, said he would be satisfied if the administration made a clarification to accommodate TikTok's U.S. staff. "That's the only thing we're asking for," he said, noting that he doesn't plan on seeking damages. But if it is really the government's intention to put TikTok out of business if it doesn't find a buyer by Sept. 20, Ryan said, "We're going to have to go to court and fight this thing."
This story has been updated to include comment from TikTok.