US Supreme Court to weigh NRA free speech fight with New York official

By Thomson Reuters Mar 18, 2024 | 5:02 AM

By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday is set to hear arguments over whether a New York state official can be sued for violating the National Rifle Association’s constitutional free speech rights by allegedly pressuring banks and insurers to avoid doing business with the influential group due to its gun rights advocacy.

The NRA is seeking to revive its 2018 lawsuit accusing Maria Vullo, a former superintendent of New York’s Department of Financial Services, of unlawfully retaliating against it following a mass shooting in which 17 people were killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

It is the latest case to come before the Supreme Court involving the NRA, a group closely aligned with Republicans that has opposed gun control measures and backed pivotal lawsuits that have widened U.S. gun rights.

The justices are hearing the NRA’s appeal of a lower court’s decision to throw out its suit against Vullo. At issue is whether Vullo wielded her regulatory power to coerce New York financial institutions into cutting ties with the NRA in violation of free speech protections under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The NRA is a nonprofit group organized under the laws of New York state, with its main offices in Virginia.

Vullo in 2018 called upon banks and insurers to consider the “reputational risks” of doing business with gun rights groups following the Parkland shootings.

She later fined Lloyd’s of London and two other insurers more than $13 million for offering an NRA-endorsed product called “Carry Guard” that Vullo’s office found was in violation of New York insurance law. The product provided liability coverage for policyholders who caused injuries from gunfire, even in cases involving the wrongful use of a firearm.

The insurers agreed to stop selling NRA-endorsed products that New York considered illegal.

The NRA’s lawsuit, seeking unspecified monetary damages, accused Vullo of unlawfully retaliating against the group for its constitutionally protected gun rights advocacy by targeting it with an “implicit censorship regime.” The suit alleged that the state’s “blacklisting” campaign sought to deprive the NRA of basic financial services and threatened its advocacy work.

Vullo said in court papers her statements encouraging financial institutions to examine their ties to pro-gun organizations following the Parkland shooting had not “crossed the line between permissible persuasion and unconstitutional coercion.”

A federal judge in 2021 dismissed all claims apart from two free speech claims against Vullo. The Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2022 said those also should have been dismissed, prompting the NRA’s Supreme Court appeal.

The NRA originally also named Vullo’s department and then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, as defendants but the case was subsequently narrowed. Vullo was sued in both her official and personal capacities.

The NRA is the largest and most powerful gun rights organization in the United States and has been instrumental in thwarting Democratic-backed gun restrictions in the U.S. Congress.

Americans remain deeply divided over how to address firearms violence including frequent mass shootings even as the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, has taken an expansive view of gun rights.

The court is expected to rule by the end of June in two important gun rights cases. One involves the legality of a federal ban on devices called “bump stocks” that enable semiautomatic weapons to fire rapidly like machine guns. Another involves the legality of a federal law that makes it a crime for people under domestic violence restraining orders to have guns.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)