NRA: Supreme Court faces claim that New York pressured companies to cut ties with NRA

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Headquarters of the National Rifle Association (NRA), in Fairfax, Virginia.


The Supreme Court wrestled with an unusual First Amendment on Monday. National Rifle Association appeal against a New York financial regulator who convinced banks and insurance companies to sever ties with the gun rights group.

The NRA claims that Maria Vullo, former superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, not only pressured insurance companies to separate themselves from the gun lobby group, but also threatened enforcement action against those companies. if they did not comply, a point that Vullo disputes.

Several members of the tribunal seemed particularly concerned about a meeting Vullo had with Lloyd’s of London in 2018 in which the NRA claims Vullo offered not to prosecute further violations as long as the company helped with the campaign against armed groups.

Vullo says his enforcement focused on an insurance product that is illegal in New York: third-party policies sold through the NRA that cover personal injury and criminal defense costs following the use of a firearm. Critics called the policies “murder insurance.”

Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative, suggested at one point that Vullo’s position would hypothetically mean that even if the superintendent had pulled out “a gun” and pointed it at company bosses and encouraged them to abandon ties to the NRA, that would not be enough to “even allege” coercion because Vullo could argue that he was simply targeting illegal insurance products.

It wasn’t just the court’s conservatives who posed difficult questions to Vullo. Several members of the court’s liberal wing also questioned why his efforts appeared to extend beyond products that were illegal under New York law.

“What she sought was a ban on even potentially legal programs,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said at one point.

The court’s decision later this year will test how far government regulators (liberal or conservative) can go in pressuring companies they control to do business with controversial entities.

“The concern is that we don’t necessarily want to allow state governments to start using this kind of regulatory force to exert sort of third-party pressure,” said Caroline Fredrickson, a Georgetown Law professor.

The danger, he said, is that regulators in both red and blue states could begin to pressure insurance companies and banks to eliminate coverage for disadvantaged defense groups or companies.

“On the other hand,” Fredrickson said, “you don’t want to prevent regulators from having any impact on who an insurance company insures.”

If other insurance companies distanced themselves from the NRA, Vullo maintains, it was because they no longer wanted to do business with the group. At least some of the entities split from the NRA after the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. high school that left 17 dead.

The case may turn in part on a meeting Vullo had with Lloyd’s of London in 2018 in which the NRA claims Vullo offered not to prosecute further violations as long as the company helped with the campaign against armed groups.

“Government officials are free to speak their minds, but not to exercise their authority to pressure others to criminalize speech based on their views,” the NRA told the high court in a brief.

Vullo has dismissed the significance of the meeting in court papers, arguing that the NRA’s allegations are not specific.

Vullo served in the administration of former Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. He left office in 2019.

A U.S. district court denied some of the NRA’s claims but allowed its First Amendment arguments to advance against Vullo. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed that decision and concluded that Vullo’s actions were not coercive. It also ruled that Vullo was entitled to qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects government officials from lawsuits in some circumstances.

“Government officials cannot, for example, use their regulatory powers to compel individuals or entities to refrain from protected speech,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin. “At the same time, however, government officials have the right – indeed, the duty – to address issues of public concern.”

The NRA is based on a 1963 Supreme Court precedent, Bantam Books v. Sullivan, which was about a Rhode Island commission that had threatened to refer distributors to the police if they sold books deemed obscene. The Supreme Court held that such “informal censorship” was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court heard a related case Monday, involving the White House, federal agencies and social media. There, Republican officials in two states and five social media users claim that the Biden administration violated the First Amendment by trying to pressure (coerce, depending on their interpretation) platforms like Facebook and X to remove misinformation.

The majority of the Supreme Court appeared deeply skeptical of the arguments put forward by the two states.

This story and headline have been updated with additional news.

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