Supreme Court sides with NRA in free speech ruling that curbs government pressure campaigns


The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously backed the National Rifle Association in a First Amendment ruling that could make it harder for state regulators to put pressure on advocacy groups.

The move means the NRA could continue its legal action against a New York official who urged banks and insurance companies to cut ties with the gun rights group in the wake of the shooting 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead.

“Government officials may not attempt to coerce private parties in order to punish or suppress views of which the government disapproves,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the most senior liberal, wrote for the court.

“Ultimately, the takeaway is that the First Amendment prohibits government officials from selectively exercising their power to punish or suppress speech,” Sotomayor added.

The NRA claimed that Maria Vullo, the former superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, not only relied on insurance companies to break away from the gun lobby, but also threatened to take enforcement action against these companies if they did not comply.

At the center of the dispute was a meeting Vullo had with insurance market Lloyd’s of London in 2018, during which the NRA claims it offered not to pursue further violations until the company helped in the campaign against armed groups. Vullo tried to dismiss the significance of the meeting, arguing in part that the NRA’s allegations about what happened were not specific.

Vullo, who served in former Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, said his app targeted an illegal insurance product in New York: third-party insurance policies sold through the NRA that cover bodily injury and criminal defense costs following the use of a firearm. Critics have dubbed these policies “insurance against murder.”

The ruling will provide some clarity to government regulators – both liberal and conservative – on how far they can go to pressure private companies that do business with controversial advocacy groups.

“This is a historic victory for the NRA and all those who care about our First Amendment freedom,” William A. Brewer III, an attorney for the association, said in a statement. “The notice confirms what the NRA knew all along: New York government officials abused the power of their office to silence a political enemy. »

A lawyer for Vullo said he was “disappointed by the court’s decision” but noted that a lower court that previously sided with Vullo on a different legal basis may ultimately reaffirm that decision.

“MS. Vullo did not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights,” attorney Neal Katyal said in a statement. “MS. Vullo enforced the Insurance Law against violations recognized by insurance entities, and Industry letters such as those issued by Ms. Vullo are common and important tools that regulators use to inform and advise the entities they supervise about risks.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch and liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote two separate opinions in which they said they agreed with the court’s decision.

In his six-page agreement, Jackson emphasized that cases like this depend heavily on the facts that give rise to the controversy.

“Whether and how government coercion of a third party could violate another party’s First Amendment rights will depend on the facts of the case,” she wrote. “Different circumstances – who is forced to do what and why – may involve different First Amendment inquiries.”

The court’s opinion makes no mention of another ongoing, related case over whether the Biden administration went too far in pressuring social media platforms like X and Facebook to remove content it considers to be misinformation.

The cases were argued on the same day in March.

Although the NRA is more likely to go to the Supreme Court to make Second Amendment arguments, it has recruited allies unfamiliar with its First Amendment claims. The American Civil Liberties Union, which usually sits opposite the NRA in the gun debate, has agreed to represent the group before the Supreme Court.

A U.S. district court rejected some of the NRA’s allegations but allowed First Amendment arguments to be applied against Vullo. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed that decision, finding that Vullo’s actions were not coercive. He also ruled that Vullo was entitled to qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects government officials from lawsuits in certain circumstances.

The NRA relied heavily on a 1963 Supreme Court decision,Bantam Books v. Sullivan, which dealt with a Rhode Island commission that threatened to refer distributors to the police if they sold books deemed obscene. The Supreme Court ruled that such “informal censorship” was unconstitutional.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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