In NRA v. Vullo, Supreme Court Says NRA’s Speech Rights Likely Violated

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that a New York state official likely violated the National Rifle Association’s free speech rights by pressuring banks and donors to cut ties with gun rights organization after 2018 Parkland, Florida, high school massacre.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the justices, said the court was reaffirming six-decade-old precedent that government officials cannot use their substantial powers to try to quash views they do not like .

“Government officials may not attempt to coerce private parties in order to punish or suppress views unfavorable to the government,” Sotomayor wrote. She added that the NRA plausibly claimed the government official “did exactly that.”

The court sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, where the NRA is pursuing a claim that Maria Vullo, the former superintendent of New York’s Department of Financial Services (DFS), trampled on the rights of organization related to the First Amendment.

The appeals court previously sided with Vullo — who argued she acted properly in enforcing the law and expressing her political views — and dismissed the NRA’s lawsuit.

In a case of strange legal associations, the conservative NRA joined forces with the liberal American Civil Liberties Union to challenge Vullo’s actions. The ACLU said Vullo abused his authority and set a dangerous precedent that other states could follow.

“If the court had allowed New York to blacklist a powerful organization like the NRA, government officials would have had even greater power to target less powerful organizations, particularly those that speak on behalf of our most powerful communities. vulnerable,” the ACLU said in a statement after the trial. ruler.

As superintendent of the DFS, Vullo had broad powers to regulate insurance companies and financial services institutions doing business in New York, including referring cases for prosecution, announcing civil charges, and entering into settlements. consent judgments.

Vullo began investigating NRA-affiliated shareholders for violations in 2017, but the case began in earnest after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The NRA and other gun rights groups faced backlash following the tragedy.

The NRA claims Vullo pressured losers to cut ties with the organization and met with executives of insurance companies doing business with the NRA to clarify his position.

In a meeting, Vullo told leaders she wanted to leverage DFS’s power to combat the availability of guns and weaken the NRA, according to the Supreme Court ruling. She also reportedly said she would be less likely to take regulatory action against losers who did not have ties to the NRA.

Vullo then issued regulatory guidance and a press release, working with then-Governor of New York. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), urging companies not to do business with the NRA.

Some insurance companies subsequently severed ties with the NRA. The NRA then sued Vullo, DFS and Cuomo.

The district court denied Vullo’s motion to dismiss the NRA’s claim that it violated the First Amendment by coercing DFS-regulated entities in an effort to punish the NRA. The Second Circuit later reversed that decision, and the NRA appealed to the Supreme Court.

Neal Katyal, Vullo’s attorney, said the decision was disappointing and that the NRA’s allegations about the meeting with executives were false.

“Ms. Vullo did not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights. Ms. Vullo enforced the Insurance Act against violations admitted 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.

Vullo’s lawyers also wrote in a brief to the High Court that Vullo did not coerce the companies.

“They did not threaten that DFS would take action against any entity that did not sever these ties,” the brief states. “And indeed, DFS has taken no such action.”

The mayor’s opinion in National Rifle Association of America v. Follow makes clear that Vullo is free to criticize the NRA and pursue violations of New York’s insurance law, but claims she overstepped when she threatened to exercise her power against New York’s gun rights the NRA.

This distinction is important in balancing free speech and government action, Alex Abdo, litigation director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in a statement.

He called the ruling “an important decision that reaffirms the fundamental rule of the First Amendment that the government cannot compel others to suppress constitutionally protected speech.”

“The ruling also rightly recognizes that while the government cannot use coercion, it must be allowed to attempt to persuade the public of its point of view,” Abdo said. “Our government could not govern effectively if it was not allowed to speak forcefully on the issues of the day. »

The case was one of two cases brought before the Supreme Court this legislature concerning government and free speech. In Murthy v. Missouri, the court will decide whether the Biden administration forced social media platforms to muzzle free speech in an effort to suppress misinformation. A decision is expected by the end of June.

Ann Marimow contributed to this report.

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