Supreme Court rules for NRA in New York government coercion battle

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Supreme Court rules for NRA in New York government coercion battle

The United States Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, U.S., February 29, 2024.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the National Rifle Association can pursue a claim that a New York state official’s efforts to encourage companies to end ties with the gun rights group constituted unlawful coercion.

The justices unanimously found that the NRA can move forward with arguments that its free speech rights under the Constitution’s First Amendment were violated by the actions of Maria Vullo, the then-superintendent of the New York state Department of Financial Services.

The case was one of two before the justices concerning alleged government coercion of private entities. The other, yet to be decided, involves claims that the Biden administration unlawfully pressured social media companies when it urged them to remove certain content.

“Government officials cannot attempt to coerce private parties in order to punish or suppress views that the government disfavors,” liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote on behalf of the court in Thursday’s ruling. The NRA, she added, plausibly alleges that Vullo “did just that.”

William Brewer, a lawyer for the gun rights group, said the ruling was a “landmark victory for the NRA and all who care about our First Amendment freedom.”

When the case returns to lower courts, Vullo can argue that she is protected by the qualified immunity legal defense that allows public officials to evade liability if they were not on notice at the time of the alleged conduct that their actions were unconstitutional.

Maria Vullo, Superintendent of Financial Services speaks during a hearing on regulating student loans Tuesday Nov. 27, 2018 in Albany, NY. 

John Carl D’Annibale | Hearst Newspapers | Getty Images

The NRA appealed a 2022 ruling by the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said Vullo’s actions did not constitute unlawful conduct, meaning the free speech claim should be dismissed.

In a 2018 lawsuit, the gun rights group zeroed in on an investigation by Vullo’s office into insurance companies that the NRA had worked with to provide coverage for members. The gun group is based in Virginia but was incorporated in New York,

Furthermore, in the aftermath of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were killed, Vullo urged insurance companies and banks to reconsider any relationships they had with gun rights-affiliated groups.

Vullo’s lawyers argued that it was well established that a government official in her position could encourage entities to consider reputational risks.

Sotomayor wrote in Thursday’s ruling that nothing in the decision gives advocacy groups immunity from government investigations or “prevents government officials from forcefully condemning views with which they disagree.”

Neal Katyal, one of Vullo’s lawyers, said in a statement he is confident she will ultimately win on qualified immunity grounds.

“Ms. Vullo did not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights. Ms. Vullo enforced the insurance law against admitted violations by insurance entities,” he added. The letters Vullo sent to insurance companies “are routine and important tools regulators use to inform and advise the entities they oversee about risks,” Katyal said.

The case saw the NRA get legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, which usually backs left-leaning causes. The ACLU said its decision to represent the gun rights group “reflects the importance of the First Amendment principles at stake in this case.”

David Cole, the group’s legal director, said the ruling “confirms that government officials have no business using their regulatory authority to blacklist disfavored political groups.”

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