Accessibility links

Breaking News

US Supreme Court boosts NRA in free speech fight with New York official

FILE - The Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 4, 2024.
FILE - The Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 4, 2024.

The U.S. Supreme Court gave a boost on Thursday to the National Rifle Association in its free speech dispute with a New York state official it accused of coercing banks and insurers to avoid doing business with the influential gun rights advocacy group.

The justices, in a 9-0 decision authored by liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, threw out a lower court's ruling that dismissed the NRA's 2018 lawsuit against Maria Vullo, a former superintendent of New York's Department of Financial Services. The NRA has claimed that Vullo unlawfully retaliated against it following a mass shooting in which 17 people were killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

At issue in the dispute is whether Vullo had wielded her regulatory power to coerce New York financial institutions into cutting ties with the NRA in violation of protections under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment against government restrictions on free speech.

"Ultimately, the critical takeaway is that the First Amendment prohibits government officials from wielding their power selectively to punish or suppress speech, directly or, as alleged here, through private intermediaries," Sotomayor wrote.

The case will now return to the lower courts for further analysis of the NRA's allegations under the standard articulated in the Supreme Court's ruling.

Vullo called upon banks and insurers to consider the "reputational risks" of doing business with gun rights groups following the February 2018 Parkland shootings. In the aftermath of the Parkland rampage by a 19-year-old former student armed with an AR-15 rifle, NRA officials lashed out at gun control advocates, arguing that Democratic elites were politicizing the shootings to erode gun rights.

Vullo 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." Its suit alleged that New York's "blacklisting" campaign sought to deprive the NRA of basic financial services and threatened its advocacy work.

The case did not involve the Constitution's Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in March.

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

A federal judge in 2021 dismissed all of the NRA's claims apart from two free speech counts 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 found an unlikely ally in the case in President Joe Biden's administration. Even though Biden has called gun violence a national embarrassment, his administration had urged the justices to let the NRA pursue its lawsuit.

The administration argued that a lower court should determine whether Vullo's actions crossed the line between permissible criticism of the NRA and coercion aimed at suppressing a disfavored viewpoint in violation of the First Amendment protections.

The case was the latest 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.

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

Vullo was sued in both her official and personal capacities. But the 2nd Circuit found that Vullo would be protected from suit under the legal defense of qualified immunity that shields officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances.

The Supreme Court by the end of June is expected to issue rulings in two gun rights cases. One involves a challenge to the legality of a federal ban on "bump stock" devices that enable semiautomatic weapons to fire rapidly like machine guns. The other involves a challenge to the legality of a federal law that makes it a crime for people under domestic violence restraining orders to have guns.

  • 16x9 Image


    Reuters is a news agency founded in 1851 and owned by the Thomson Reuters Corporation based in Toronto, Canada. One of the world's largest wire services, it provides financial news as well as international coverage in over 16 languages to more than 1000 newspapers and 750 broadcasters around the globe.