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Supreme Court rules in favor of NRA in key First Amendment case

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The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously decided that the National Rifle Association (NRA) ‘plausibly alleged’ that the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) violated the group’s First Amendment rights by blacklisting the group.

In a unanimous decision written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the high court ‘holds that the NRA plausibly alleged that [then-New York State Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria T.] Vullo violated the First Amendment by coercing DFS-regulated entities to terminate their business relationships with the NRA in order to punish or suppress the NRA’s advocacy.’ 

‘The judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,’ the court said, allowing the NRA to continue to argue its case, overruling the second circuit’s dismissal of the suit.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by the NRA in 2018 which questioned whether a government regulator threatens regulated entities with adverse regulatory actions if they do business with a controversial speaker, allegedly because of the government’s own hostility to the speaker’s viewpoint, violates the First Amendment.

‘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,’ the opinion states. 

‘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,’ it said. ‘Petitioner National Rifle Association (NRA) plausibly alleges that respondent Maria Vullo did just that.’

The NRA sued Vullo, who — at the order of former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — allegedly blacklisted the NRA, effectively forcing banks and insurers to cut ties with the group.

She sent ‘guidance letters’ in 2018 to banks and insurance companies encouraging them to sever ties with the NRA and other pro-Second Amendment organizations, citing reputational risks. The guidance letters were issued shortly after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students and staff.

The lawsuit alleged that Vullo made ‘backroom threats’ against regulated firms, accompanied by offers of leniency on unrelated infractions if regulated entities would agree to blacklist the NRA.

‘As superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services, Vullo allegedly pressured regulated entities to help her stifle the NRA’s pro-gun advocacy by threatening enforcement actions against those entities that refused to disassociate from the NRA and other gun-promotion advocacy groups,’ the court’s Thursday opinion states. 

‘Those allegations, if true, state a First Amendment claim.’

The Supreme Court in November agreed to hear National Rifle Association of America v. Vullo, after a federal appeals court in 2022 dismissed the group’s lawsuit, arguing Vullo’s actions were reasonable. 

On Thursday, the high court said the Second Circuit is vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion, meaning the gun rights group can continue to argue its case in lower courts. 

The NRA garnered support from unlikely allies in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a group that ideologically opposes the NRA but said it is ‘proud’ to defend the gun group’s ‘right to speak.’

‘Today’s decision confirms that government officials have no business using their regulatory authority to blacklist disfavored political groups,’  said David Cole, the ACLU’s national legal director, who argued the case for the NRA.  ‘

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.’

Neal Katyal of Hogan Lovells, counsel for Vullo, said, ‘We are disappointed by the Court’s decision. As the Court’s decision makes clear, because of the posture of this case, this ruling required the Court to treat the NRA’s untested allegations as true even though these allegations have no evidentiary merit.’ 

‘This case will now go back to the Second Circuit, which threw out the lawsuit on qualified immunity grounds before. The Supreme Court did not address the qualified immunity decision of the Second Circuit, and we are confident Ms. Vullo’s claim of qualified immunity will be reaffirmed,’ Katyal said, adding that, ‘Ms. Vullo did not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights.’

Fox News’ Shannon Bream and Bill Mears and Fox News Digital’s Emma Colton contributed to this report. 

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