Supreme Court Sides With NRA In Free Speech Ruling That Curbs Government Pressure Campaigns

An image made with a drone shows the headquarters of the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Virginia, in August 2020. The Supreme Court on May 30 unanimously backed the National Rifle Association in a First Amendment ruling. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Sipa USA via CNN Newsource)

By John Fritze and Devan Cole, CNN

(CNN) — 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 pressure advocacy groups.

The decision means the NRA may continue to pursue its lawsuit against a New York official who urged banks and insurance companies to cut ties with the gun rights group following the 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 people dead.

“Government officials cannot attempt to coerce private parties in order to punish or suppress views that the government disfavors,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the most senior liberal, wrote for the court.

“Ultimately, the critical takeaway is that the First Amendment prohibits government officials from wielding their power selectively 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 leaned on insurance companies to part ways with the gun lobby but threatened enforcement actions against those firms if they failed to comply.

At the center of the dispute was a meeting Vullo had with insurance market Lloyd’s of London in 2018 in which the NRA claims she offered to not prosecute other violations as long as the company helped with the campaign against gun groups. Vullo tried to wave off the significance of the meeting, arguing in part that the NRA’s allegations of what took place were not specific.

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

The decision will provide some clarity to government regulators — both liberal and conservative — about how far they may go to pressure private companies that do business with controversial advocacy groups.

“This is a landmark victory for the NRA and all who care about our First Amendment freedom,” William A. Brewer III, a lawyer for the association, said in a statement. “The opinion confirms what the NRA has known all along: New York government officials abused the power of their office to silence a political enemy.”

An attorney for Vullo said they were “disappointed by the court’s decision” but noted that a lower court that previously sided with her on a different legal basis may ultimately reaffirm that decision.

“Ms. Vullo did not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights,” the attorney, Neal Katyal, said in a statement. “Ms. Vullo enforced the insurance law against admitted violations by insurance entities, and industry letters such as those issued by Ms. Vullo are routine and important tools regulators use to inform and advise the entities they oversee about risks.”

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

In her six-page concurrence, Jackson stressed that cases like the one at hand turn heavily on the facts that give rise to the controversy.

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

The court’s opinion made no mention of another pending and related case dealing with whether the Biden administration went too far in pressuring social media platforms like X and Facebook to remove content it views as misinformation.

The cases were argued on the same day in March.

While the NRA is more likely to be at the Supreme Court making Second Amendment arguments, it picked up unfamiliar allies with its First Amendment claim. The American Civil Liberties Union, which usually sits opposite the NRA in the debate over guns, agreed to represent the group before the Supreme Court.

A US district court denied some of the NRA’s claims but allowed its First Amendment arguments to proceed against Vullo. The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, concluding that Vullo’s actions were not coercive. It also ruled that Vullo was entitled to qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields government officials from lawsuits in some circumstances.

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

This story has been updated with additional details.

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