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Supreme Court Unanimously Rules in Favor of NRA in Free Speech Case, Upholds First Amendment Rights of All Advocacy Groups

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that the National Rifle Association’s allegations that New York state officials coerced private companies to blacklist the group because of its political views stated a claim under the First Amendment, reversing a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the NRA before the court in NRA v. Vullo, arguing that any government attempt to blacklist an advocacy group because of its viewpoint violates the First Amendment.

David Cole, the ACLU’s national legal director, who argued the case for the NRA, said: “Today’s decision confirms that government officials have no business using their regulatory authority to blacklist disfavored political groups. The New York state officials involved here, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his chief financial regulator, Maria Vullo, were clear that they sought to punish the NRA because they disagreed with its gun rights advocacy. The Supreme Court has now made crystal clear that this action is unconstitutional.”

As Justice Sotomayer’s opinion noted, “At the heart of the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause is the recognition that viewpoint discrimination is uniquely harmful to a free and democratic society. … The takeaway is that the First Amendment prohibits government officials from wielding their power selectively to punish or suppress speech.”

While the ACLU stands in stark opposition to the NRA on many issues, it represented the group to safeguard the First Amendment rights of all advocacy organizations. Across the country, organizations in the fight for racial justice, criminal legal reform, reproductive and LGBTQ rights too often face attacks by state and local government officials who disagree with their point of view. If the court had allowed New York to blacklist a powerful organization like the NRA, government officials would have had even greater power to target less powerful organizations — especially those who speak for our most vulnerable communities.

“This is a landmark victory for the NRA and all who care about our First Amendment freedom,” said William A. Brewer III, counsel to the NRA. “The opinion confirms what the NRA has known all along: New York government officials abused the power of their office to silence a political enemy. This is a victory for the NRA’s millions of members and the freedoms that define America.”

Before the case reached the Supreme Court, the NRA sued Maria Vullo, who was the superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) in 2018, after she leveraged her regulatory power over banks and insurance companies to coerce them into denying basic financial services to the NRA and, in Vullo’s own words, “other gun promotion” groups. Openly claiming that she sought to penalize the NRA because she disapproved of its political advocacy, the NRA’s complaint alleged that Vullo issued formal guidance to every bank and insurance company in New York urging them to “sever ties” with the NRA, promised lenience to certain insurers if they would stop doing business with the NRA, and required the group’s three principal “affinity insurance” providers never to provide such insurance to the NRA again.

A district court ruled that the NRA’s allegations against Vullo were sufficient to claim that she violated the NRA’s First Amendment rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed this ruling, stating that Vullo’s actions constitute “government speech.” The Supreme Court has today clarified that Vullo, and any politician who may seek to duplicate her tactics, will be found in violation of the First Amendment. The ACLU represented the NRA in the Supreme Court proceeding only.

The issue of when government officials cross the line in urging retaliation against political groups they dislike is especially important because, prior to this case, there was only one Supreme Court precedent addressing such “informal” efforts to suppress First Amendment activity, Bantam Books v. Sullivan. The case is more than 60 years old and, in the past, the circuit courts have divided in applying it. This case is a critically important win for Americans’ right to free speech.

The Supreme Court opinion is available here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/23pdf/22-842_6kg7.pdf

NRA v. Vullo is a part of the ACLU’s Joan and Irwin Jacobs Supreme Court Docket.

Originally published at https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/supreme-court-unanimously-rules-in-favor-of-nra-in-free-speech-case-upholds-first-amendment-rights-of-all-advocacy-groups

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