Tag Archive for: National Rifle Association

SCOTUS Hands NRA First Amendment Win

In a victory for First Amendment rights, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided to reinstate a lawsuit brought by the National Rifle Association (NRA) alleging that New York state officials had violated the Second Amendment advocacy group’s First Amendment rights.

Following a 2018 school shooting, then-superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) Maria Vullo pressured financial institutions “to punish or suppress” the NRA, due to the organization’s gun rights advocacy. The NRA argued that Vullo violated the First Amendment and overstepped her official bounds, going beyond advising financial institutions and actually coercing them into targeting the NRA. But the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that Vullo’s actions “constituted permissible government speech and legitimate law enforcement.”

In an opinion penned by typically-left-leaning Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the NRA put forth a strong enough case that its lawsuit should be reinstated. “Six decades ago, this Court held that a government entity’s ‘threat of invoking legal sanctions and other means of coercion’ against a third party ‘to achieve the suppression’ of disfavored speech violates the First Amendment,” Sotomayor wrote. “Today, the Court reaffirms what it said then: Government officials cannot attempt to coerce private parties in order to punish or suppress views that the government disfavors. Petitioner National Rifle Association (NRA) plausibly alleges that respondent Maria Vullo did just that.”

According to Sotomayor’s summary of the case, Vullo began investigating several NRA-associated insurance programs, finding several minor regulatory infractions. After the February 14, 2018 shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, numerous companies and financial institutions spoke out against the NRA and some even severed ties with the group. Among those which refused to do business with the NRA were Lockton Companies, Chubb Corporation, and Lloyd’s of London, who respectively administered and underwrote insurance plans for NRA members.

Sotomayor wrote that, after the shooting, Vullo met with executives at Lockton, Chubb, and Lloyd’s and expressed a “desire to leverage [her office’s] powers to combat the availability of firearms, including specifically by weakening the NRA.” She also told executives — specifically Lloyd’s executives — that she had found numerous “technical regulatory infractions plaguing the affinity insurance marketplace,” but indicated “that DFS was less interested in pursuing the[se] infractions” unrelated to any NRA business “so long as Lloyd’s ceased providing insurance to gun groups, especially the NRA.”

Sotomayor summarized, “Vullo and Lloyd’s struck a deal: Lloyd’s ‘would instruct its syndicates to cease underwriting firearm-related policies and would scale back its NRA-related business,’ and ‘in exchange, DFS would focus its forthcoming affinity-insurance enforcement action solely on those syndicates which served the NRA, and ignore other syndicates writing similar policies.’”

Shortly afterwards, Vullo issued “guidance” letters to New York financial institutions, urging them to fulfill “their social responsibility” by ceasing to do business with the NRA. She and then-Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) hosted a joint press conference reiterating those points. Chubb agreed to stop underwriting NRA insurance policies and Vullo called on others to do likewise. Chubb and Lloyd’s entered into agreements with Vullo and DFS in early May.

“As DFS superintendent, Vullo had direct regulatory and enforcement authority over all insurance companies and financial service institutions doing business in New York,” Sotomayor explained. “So, whether analyzed as a threat or as an inducement, the conclusion is the same: Vullo allegedly coerced Lloyd’s by saying she would ignore unrelated infractions and focus her enforcement efforts on NRA-related business alone, if Lloyd’s ceased underwriting NRA policies and disassociated from gun-promotion groups.”

“One can reasonably infer from the complaint that Vullo coerced DFS-regulated entities to cut their ties with the NRA in order to stifle the NRA’s gun-promotion advocacy and advance her views on gun control,” Sotomayor continued. She further explained:

“To state a claim that the government violated the First Amendment through coercion of a third party, a plaintiff must plausibly allege conduct that, viewed in context, could be reasonably understood to convey a threat of adverse government action in order to punish or suppress the plaintiff ’s speech. Accepting the well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint as true, the NRA plausibly alleged that Vullo violated the First Amendment by coercing DFS-regulated entities into disassociating with the NRA in order to punish or suppress the NRA’s gun-promotion advocacy.”

“The NRA’s allegations, if true, highlight the constitutional concerns with the kind of intermediary strategy that Vullo purportedly adopted to target the NRA’s advocacy,” Sotomayor explained. “Such a strategy allows government officials to expand their regulatory jurisdiction to suppress the speech of organizations that they have no direct control over.” She concluded, “Ultimately, the critical takeaway is that the First Amendment prohibits government officials from wielding their power selectively to punish or suppress speech, directly or (as alleged here) through private intermediaries.”

The court’s decision was unanimous. Justices Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, and Biden-appointed Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote concurring opinions. This comes as the Supreme Court deliberates over a case regarding the federal government and its agencies pressuring or coercing social media entities into censoring American political speech online.


S.A. McCarthy

S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.

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