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News / Nation & World

Supreme Court clears the way for the NRA’s free speech lawsuit against an ex-New York official

Published: May 30, 2024, 8:48am

WASHINGTON (AP) — A unanimous Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for a National Rifle Association lawsuit against a former New York state official over claims she pressured companies to blacklist it following the deadly 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Giving the NRA a new chance to prove its case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “the critical takeaway is that the First Amendment prohibits government officials from wielding their power selectively to punish or suppress speech.”

The NRA said ex-New York state Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria Vullo violated its free-speech rights during her investigation of NRA-endorsed insurance policies. The group had been working with insurance companies to offer its members Carry Guard policies that covered losses caused by firearms, even when the insured person intentionally killed or hurt somebody. Critics have called the policies “murder insurance.”

In an unusual alignment, the NRA was represented in the case by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Biden administration argued some of its claims should go forward.

“This is a landmark victory for the NRA and all who care about our First Amendment freedom,” NRA attorney William A. Brewer III said, accusing New York government officials of abusing their power to silence the group.

The Supreme Court ruling favoring the NRA, which is based in Fairfax, Virginia, reverses a lower-court decision tossing out the gun rights group’s lawsuit against Vullo. The decision means the NRA’s lawsuit can go forward, but it does not decide the merits of the claim. It also should not be read to shield the NRA and other advocacy groups from regulation, Sotomayor said.

But, she wrote, the NRA’s complaint “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.”

Vullo argued that she rightly investigated NRA-endorsed insurance policies. She said she did speak out about the risks of doing business with gun groups but didn’t exert any improper pressure on companies, many of which were distancing themselves from the NRA on their own at the time.

The NRA said Vullo leveraged the state investigation into the legality of NRA-endorsed insurance products to pressure insurance companies, saying she would go easier on them if they cut ties with the group.

The products clearly violated state law, Vullo countered, including by covering intentional acts and criminal defense costs. The probe started before the Parkland massacre, which left 17 people dead, and the insurance providers ultimately agreed to pay multimillion-dollar fines.

Vullo also sent out guidance letters to banks and insurance companies warning about the “reputational risks” of working with the NRA. The NRA said her words had significant sway because of her position and several companies cut ties with the group, costing it millions of dollars in revenue.

Vullo said the letters were evenhanded, and her attorney argued that letting the lawsuit go forward would improperly muzzle public officials.