Supreme Court Considers Claim That New York Regulators Violated NRA’s First Amendment Rights

Gun Rights

For good reason, much attention was devoted to the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on Monday, over government pressure on social media companies to suppress speech that officialdom doesn’t like. The same day, though, justices heard arguments in another important case involving free speech principles violated when New York officials leaned on financial institutions to deny services to the National Rifle Association. Importantly, both cases involved “jawboning,” the use by government of threats to improperly coerce compliance.

When Communication Becomes Coercion

As Reason‘s Jacob Sullum ably summarizes, arguments in Murthy v. Missouri involve “dueling interpretations of the Biden administration’s interactions with social media platforms regarding content it viewed as dangerous to public health, democracy, or national security,” with plaintiffs arguing that “those private contacts, combined with public statements condemning the platforms’ failure to suppress ‘misinformation,’ amounted to government-directed censorship.”

At stake is the point at which efforts to persuade private companies they ought not offer platforms to certain speakers morph into “nice business you got there; it’d be a shame if something happened to it.” Did officials cross the line when they badgered tech firms to muzzle voices skeptical of lockdowns, COVID vaccinations, and election integrity? If you’ve followed the Twitter and Facebook Files, you know there’s significant evidence they did, though it remains to be seen if Supreme Court justices agree.

Remarkably, the evidence of improper strong-arming appears even clearer in National Rifle Association of America v. Vullo. In that case, the NRA, joined by the ACLU, alleges that Maria Vullo, former Superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, abused the power of her position to punish the gun rights organization for its political positions.

“Vullo met with executives at Lloyd’s of London to discuss her views on gun control and to tell them she believed the company’s underwriting of NRA-endorsed insurance policies raised regulatory issues,” according to Abby Smith of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). “She told them Lloyd’s could ‘avoid liability’—but only if the company told its syndicates to stop underwriting their insurance policies, and joined her agency’s ‘campaign against gun groups.'”

There was nothing subtle about the arm-twisting. In 2018 I wrote about guidance letters New York regulators sent to banks and insurance companies, at the behest of then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, cautioning “regulated institutions to review any relationships they have with the NRA or similar gun promotion organizations, and to take prompt actions to managing these risks and promote public health and safety.” Given that insurance companies and banks are tightly regulated and operate largely at the pleasure of state officials, this would logically be interpreted as a threat. Subsequently, banks and insurance companies alike cut ties with the NRA.

“New York, if these facts are true, tried to circumvent the First Amendment’s ban on censorship by relying on this informal pressure campaign,” noted FIRE’s Smith. “But informal censorship violates the First Amendment, too.”

Extra-Legal Threats Violate Individual Rights Protections, Say the Courts

Such informal censorship is known as “jawboning” since, as the Cato Institute’s Will Duffield wrote in 2022, it involves “bullying, threatening, and cajoling” in the place of formal legal action.

“Jawboning occurs when a government official threatens to use his or her power—be it the power to prosecute, regulate, or legislate—to compel someone to take actions that the state official cannot,” observed Duffield. “Jawboning is dangerous because it allows government officials to assume powers not granted to them by law.”

Despite formal protections for individual liberties, such as the First Amendment, the vast regulatory power wielded by government agencies in the United States is easily weaponized against people who don’t do the government’s bidding. Such abuses aren’t hypothetical but are a matter of public record already addressed by the courts.

“People do not lightly disregard public officers’ thinly veiled threats to institute criminal proceedings against them if they do not come around,” the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Bantam Books v. Sullivan (1963). That case involved Rhode Island officials hassling booksellers to refrain from stocking allegedly obscene publications. The implied threats and constant nagging of booksellers by state officials “was in fact a scheme of state censorship effectuated by extra-legal sanctions,” ruled the court.

Does “a scheme of state censorship effectuated by extra-legal sanctions” better describe the situation in the Murthy case or in the NRA case? Well, Monday was a twofer day, so why not both?

A Strong Case Against New York’s Jawboning

In truth, New York regulators’ threats to insurance companies and banks that do business with the NRA and other gun groups were so overt that even commenters hostile to the NRA and self-defense rights concede that state officials went way over the line.

“Every now and then, the Supreme Court takes up a case involving a public official who acted so foolishly…that you wish the justices could each take turns smacking them upside the head,” Vox‘s Ian Millhiser, no fan of the NRA, conceded last November. “National Rifle Association v. Vullo, which the Court announced that it would hear last Friday, is such a case.”

And so far, while it’s uncertain which way the justices will jump in Murthy, the court seems inclined to agree that it’s impermissible for government officials to use regulatory threats to coerce financial firms into cutting ties with disfavored political organizations.

“The Supreme Court on Monday appeared sympathetic to the National Rifle Association’s claim that a New York official violated the group’s right to freedom of speech when she urged banks and insurance companies that worked with the NRA to cut ties with the group,” SCOTUSblog‘s Amy Howe concluded. ACLU Legal Director David Cole “closed by telling the justices that ‘the notion that this is business as usual, for a government official to speak with a private party and say we’ll go easy on you if you aid my campaign to weaken the NRA. That is not business as usual. That is not ordinary plea negotiation.’ Although it was not entirely clear, a majority of the justices seemed to agree with him.”

With government reaching ever further into American life, it’s time the court reminds officials, once again, that their intrusive powers aren’t supposed to be used to bypass protections for individual rights.

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