ACLU to Defend NRA before Supreme Court, to Uphold Advocacy Groups’ Right to Free Speech

Photo of Supreme Court/Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0

The case will determine whether the First Amendment allows government regulators to threaten retaliation against businesses that work with a controversial advocacy organization.

Special to the Vanguard

Washington, DC – The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday filed a brief in the Supreme Court on behalf of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in NRA v. Vullo, arguing that government attempts to blacklist a nonprofit advocacy group and deny it financial services because of its viewpoint violate the First Amendment. While the ACLU stands in stark opposition to the NRA on many issues, it is representing the group to safeguard the First Amendment rights of all advocacy organizations.

“While the ACLU disagrees with the NRA’s advocacy, we are proud to defend its right to speak,” said ACLU Legal Director David Cole, who will argue the case for the NRA. “Public officials cannot be allowed to abuse their regulatory powers to blacklist an organization just because they oppose its political views. If New York is allowed to do this to the NRA, it will provide a playbook for other state officials to abuse their authority to target groups they don’t like.”

In 2018, the NRA sued Maria Vullo, who was then the superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS), 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 alleges 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 will now clarify whether Vullo’s actions violate the First Amendment.

In its brief, the ACLU urges the Supreme Court to apply the precedent it set in 1963 in Bantam Books v. Sullivan, which established that informal, indirect efforts to suppress or penalize speech violate the First Amendment just as much as direct censorship. By upholding the protections created in Bantam Books more than 60 years ago, the Supreme Court will safeguard all advocacy groups from government overreach.

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