New York can’t violate NRA’s First Amendment rights: Supreme Court

Gun Rights
An overcast sky hangs above the U.S. Supreme Court on December 16, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
An overcast sky hangs above the U.S. Supreme Court on December 16, 2019, in Washington, D.C. | Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that government officials in New York unlawfully pressured businesses to cut ties with the National Rifle Association over its advocacy against gun regulations in a case with free speech implications. 

In a decision released Thursday morning in the case of National Rifle Association of America v. Vullo, the high court looked into allegations that New York Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria Vullo forced entities to sever ties with the NRA over the group’s activism.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored the unanimous opinion, writing that the NRA “plausibly alleges” that Vullo “pressured regulated entities to help her stifle the NRA’s pro-gun advocacy by threatening enforcement actions against those entities that refused to disassociate from the NRA and other gun-promotion advocacy groups.”

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“Vullo was free to criticize the NRA and pursue the conceded violations of New York insurance law. She could not wield her power, however, to threaten enforcement actions against DFS-regulated entities in order to punish or suppress the NRA’s gun-promotion advocacy,” Sotomayor wrote.

“In sum, the complaint, assessed as a whole, plausibly alleges that Vullo threatened to wield her power against those refusing to aid her campaign to punish the NRA’s gun-promotion advocacy. If true, that violates the First Amendment.”

The Supreme Court opinion overturns a lower court ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and remands the case back to that level for further proceedings.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who recently garnered criticism for stating that the First Amendment is “hamstringing the federal government in significant ways,” wrote a concurring opinion in which she discussed “the important distinction between government coercion, on the one hand, and a violation of the First Amendment, on the other.”

“That case does not hold that government coercion alone violates the First Amendment. And recognizing the distinction between government coercion and a First Amendment violation is important because our democracy can function only if the government can effectively enforce the rules embodied in legislation,” Jackson wrote.

“The existence of an allegation of government coercion of a third party thus merely invites, rather than answers, the question whether that coercion indirectly worked a violation of the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights.”

The NRA v. Vullo garnered attention from Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal nonprofit that specializes in religious freedom cases and the First Amendment.

In January, ADF filed an amicus brief on behalf of the pro-life Christian group Heartbeat International, Inc. in support of the NRA because “it is keenly interested in protecting itself and the pro-life centers it supports from viewpoint-based censorship.”

“Here, it is gun control, but it could just as easily be pro-life speech. Regrettably, many public officials are hostile to pro-life speech and have violated the First Amendment rights of those expressing pro-life views,” noted the brief.

“Heartbeat’s own insurance provider recently canceled its general liability policy, bluntly stating that Heartbeat’s stance on legalized abortion precipitated the move.” 

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