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.

“Ultimately, the bottom line is that the First Amendment prohibits government officials from selectively exercising their power to punish or suppress speech, directly or (as alleged here) through of private intermediaries,” indicates the opinion of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

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 claims about what happened were not specific.

Vullo, who served in former Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration said its enforcement targeted an illegal insurance product in New York: third-party insurance policies sold through the NRA that cover personal 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.

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 c. 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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