Unanimous Supreme Court Revives NRA Free Speech Case After New York Officials Sought To Bankrupt ‘Extremist Organization’

‘Today’s decision confirms that government officials have no business using their regulatory authority to blacklist disfavored political groups,’ the ACLU’s legal director tells the Sun.

AP/Jeff Roberson, file
Justice Sonia Sotomayor on April 5, 2022, at Washington University at St. Louis. AP/Jeff Roberson, file

It’s not often that the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and all nine Supreme Court justices align on something. 

Yet that’s what happened on Thursday, as the Supreme Court unanimously — and, with an opinion authored by a liberal justice, Sonia Sotomayor — allowed the gun organization to revive a 2018 First Amendment lawsuit against the former superintendent of New York’s Department of Financial Services, Maria Vullo. 

At issue was whether Ms. Vullo, at Governor Cuomo’s urging, used a backdoor censorship regime to “financially blacklist” the group because of its pro-Second Amendment views following a deadly school shooting at Parkland, Florida. 

“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,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, as the court remanded the case back to the Second Circuit. 

In a rare alliance, the ACLU backed the NRA in court. 

“Today’s decision confirms that government officials have no business using their regulatory authority to blacklist disfavored political groups,” the ACLU’s national legal director, David Cole, tells the Sun, adding that Ms. Vullo and Mr. Cuomo had clearly “sought to punish” the NRA because it disagreed with its gun advocacy. “The Supreme Court has now made crystal clear that this action is unconstitutional.

The NRA, as it prepares to forge ahead in its legal fight in the lower courts, is promising that the “voice of the NRA membership is as loud and influential as ever.” 

“Regulators are now on notice: this is a win for not only the NRA, but every organization who might otherwise suffer from an abuse of government power,” the NRA’s president, Bob Barr, said in a statement after the Supreme Court decision.

The NRA contended that Ms. Vullo, at the behest of Mr. Cuomo, leveraged her financial regulatory power over insurance groups and banks to try to coerce them into cutting ties with the NRA. In one instance, in April 2018, Mr. Cuomo issued a statement directing financial regulators to urge banks and insurance companies to “review any relationships they may have” with the NRA and similar groups.

“DFS urges all insurance companies and banks doing business in New York to join the companies that have already discontinued their arrangements with the NRA, and to take prompt actions to manage these risks and promote public health and safety,” Ms. Vullo said at the time.

“The NRA is an extremist organization,” Mr. Cuomo tweeted the next day. “I urge companies in New York State to revisit any ties they have to the NRA and consider their reputations, and responsibility to the public.” Months later, Mr. Cuomo openly bragged that he wanted to #BankruptTheNRA and promised to fight toward “forcing the NRA into financial crisis” and putting the “gun lobby out of business,” as the Sun has reported. 

The state’s financial services department — which declined to comment when reached by the Sun — regulates nearly 3,000 financial institutes with assets totaling more than $8.8 trillion as of 2021, its website notes. 

Ms. Vullo, in a brief before the court, argued that the case was about a government official having the freedom to express viewpoints “without fear that their statements will subject them to damages actions brought by entities that espouse controversial views.” 

“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,” Justice Sotomayor wrote for the majority in Thursday’s decision, citing Bantam Books v. Sullivan. “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.”

The New York Sun

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