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Free Speech

Unanimous First Amendment Victory for the NRA (Represented by the ACLU)


From Justice Sotomayor's opinion today in NRA v. Vullo (the NRA was represented by the ACLU, with David Cole arguing before the Court; by William Brewer, Sarah Rogers & Noah Peters of Brewer Attorneys & Counselors; and by me):

[A.] 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. Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan (1963). 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.

Petitioner National Rifle Association (NRA) plausibly alleges that respondent Maria Vullo did just that. As superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services [DFS], 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. [More factual details below. -EV] Those allegations, if true, state a First Amendment claim….

A government official can share her views freely and criticize particular beliefs, and she can do so forcefully in the hopes of persuading others to follow her lead. In doing so, she can rely on the merits and force of her ideas, the strength of her convictions, and her ability to inspire others. What she cannot do, however, is use the power of the State to punish or suppress disfavored expression….

[B.] In Bantam Books v. Sullivan (1963), this Court explored the distinction between permissible attempts to persuade and impermissible attempts to coerce. There, a state commission used its power to investigate and recommend criminal prosecution to censor publications that, in its view, were "'objectionable'" because they threatened "youthful morals."

The commission sent official notices to a distributor for blacklisted publications that highlighted the commission's "duty to recommend to the Attorney General" violations of the State's obscenity laws. The notices also informed the distributor that the lists of blacklisted publications "were circulated to local police departments," and that the distributor's cooperation in removing the publications from the shelves would "'eliminate the necessity'" of any referral for prosecution. A local police officer also conducted followup visits to ensure compliance. In response, the distributor took "steps to stop further circulation of copies of the listed publications" out of fear of facing "'a court action.'"

The publishers of the blacklisted publications sued the commission, alleging that this scheme of informal censorship violated their First Amendment rights. The commission responded that "it d[id] not regulate or suppress obscenity but simply exhort[ed] booksellers and advise[d] them of their legal rights." This Court sided with the publishers, holding that the commission violated their free-speech rights by coercing the distributor to stop selling and displaying the listed publications.

The Court explained that the First Amendment prohibits government officials from relying on the "threat of invoking legal sanctions and other means of coercion … to achieve the suppression" of disfavored speech. Although the commission lacked the "power to apply formal legal sanctions," the distributor "reasonably understood" the commission to threaten adverse action, and thus the distributor's "compliance with the [c]ommission's directives was not voluntary." To reach this conclusion, the Court considered things like: the commission's coordination with law enforcement and its authority to refer matters for prosecution; the notices themselves, which were "phrased virtually as orders" containing "thinly veiled threats to institute criminal proceedings" if the distributor did not come around; and the distributor's reaction to the notices and followup visits….

Ultimately, Bantam Books stands for the principle that a government official cannot do indirectly what she is barred from doing directly: A government official cannot coerce a private party to punish or suppress disfavored speech on her behalf….

[C.] To state a claim that the government violated the First Amendment through coercion of a third party, a plaintiff must plausibly allege conduct that, viewed in context, could be reasonably understood to convey a threat of adverse government action in order to punish or suppress the plaintiff 's speech. Accepting the well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint as true, the NRA plausibly alleged that Vullo violated the First Amendment by coercing DFS-regulated entities into disassociating with the NRA in order to punish or suppress the NRA's gun-promotion advocacy.

Consider first Vullo's authority, which serves as a backdrop to the NRA's allegations of coercion. The power that a government official wields, while certainly not dispositive, is relevant to the objective inquiry of whether a reasonable person would perceive the official's communication as coercive…. As DFS superintendent, Vullo had direct regulatory and enforcement authority over all insurance companies and financial service institutions doing business in New York. Just like the commission in Bantam Books, Vullo could initiate investigations and refer cases for prosecution. Indeed, she could do much more than that. Vullo also had the power to notice civil charges and, as this case shows, enter into consent decrees that impose significant monetary penalties.

Against this backdrop, consider Vullo's communications with the DFS-regulated entities, particularly with Lloyd's. According to the NRA, Vullo brought a variety of insurance-law violations to the Lloyd's executives' attention during a private meeting in February 2018. The violations included technical infractions that allegedly plagued the affinity insurance market in New York and that were unrelated to any NRA business.

Vullo allegedly said she would be "less interested in pursuing the[se] infractions … so long as Lloyd's ceased providing insurance to gun groups, especially the NRA." Vullo therefore wanted Lloyd's to disassociate from all gun groups, although there was no indication that such groups had unlawful insurance policies similar to the NRA's.

Vullo also told the Lloyd's executives she would "focus" her enforcement actions "solely" on the syndicates with ties to the NRA, "and ignore other syndicates writing similar policies." The message was therefore loud and clear: Lloyd's "could avoid liability for [unrelated] infractions" if it "aided DFS's campaign against gun groups" by terminating its business relationships with them.

As alleged, Vullo's communications with Lloyd's can be reasonably understood as a threat or as an inducement. Either of those can be coercive. As Vullo concedes, the "threat need not be explicit," and as the Solicitor General explains, "[t]he Constitution does not distinguish between 'comply or I'll prosecute' and 'comply and I'll look the other way.'" … Vullo allegedly coerced Lloyd's by saying she would ignore unrelated infractions and focus her enforcement efforts on NRA-related business alone, if Lloyd's ceased underwriting NRA policies and disassociated from gun-promotion groups.

The reaction from Lloyd's further confirms the communications' coercive nature. At the meeting itself, Lloyd's "agreed that it would instruct its syndicates to cease underwriting firearm-related policies and would scale back its NRA-related business." Minutes from a subsequent board of directors' meeting reveal that Lloyd's thought "the DFS investigation had transformed the gun issue into 'a regulatory, legal[,] and compliance matter.'" That reaction is consistent with Lloyd's public announcement that it had directed its syndicates to "terminate all insurance related to the NRA and not to provide any insurance to the NRA in the future."

Other allegations, viewed in context, reinforce the NRA's First Amendment claim. Consider the April 2018 Guidance Letters and accompanying press release, which Vullo issued on official letterhead. Just like in her meeting with the Lloyd's executives, here too Vullo singled out the NRA and other gun-promotion organizations as the targets of her call to action.

This time, the Guidance Letters reminded DFS-regulated entities of their obligation to consider their "reputational risks," and then tied that obligation to an encouragement for "prompt actio[n] to manag[e] these risks." Evocative of Vullo's private conversation with the Lloyd's executives a few weeks earlier, the press release revealed how to manage the risks by encouraging DFS-regulated entities to "'discontinu[e] their arrangements with the NRA,'" just like Chubb did when it stopped underwriting Carry Guard. A follow-on tweet from Cuomo reaffirmed the message: Businesses in New York should "'consider their reputations'" and "'revisit any ties they have to the NRA,'" which he called "'an extremist organization.'" …

[T]his Court cannot simply credit Vullo's assertion that "pursuing conceded violations of the law" is an "'obvious alternative explanation'" for her actions that defeats the plausibility of any coercive threat raising First Amendment concerns. Of course, discovery in this case might show that the allegations of coercion are false, or that certain actions should be understood differently in light of newly disclosed evidence. At this stage, though, the Court must assume the well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint are true.

{Vullo also argues that she is entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity for her enforcement actions. Putting aside whether a financial regulator like Vullo is entitled to such immunity in the administrative context, because Vullo did not raise this defense below with respect to the First Amendment claim (or even with respect to allegations unrelated to the consent decrees), the Court declines to consider that argument here in the first instance.}

[D.] Moreover, the conceded illegality of the NRA-endorsed insurance programs does not insulate Vullo from First Amendment scrutiny under the Bantam Books framework. Indeed, the commission in that case targeted the distribution and display of material that, in its view, violated the State's obscenity laws. Nothing in that case turned on the distributor's compliance with state law. On the contrary, Bantam Books held that the commission violated the First Amendment by invoking legal sanctions to suppress disfavored publications, some of which may or may not contain protected speech (i.e., nonobscene material).

Here, too, although Vullo can pursue violations of state insurance law, she cannot do so in order to punish or suppress the NRA's protected expression. So, the contention that the NRA and the insurers violated New York law does not excuse Vullo from allegedly employing coercive threats to stifle gun-promotion advocacy….

[E.] That Vullo "regulate[d]" business activities stemming from the NRA's "relationships with insurers and banks" does not change the allegations that her actions were aimed at punishing or suppressing speech…. One can reasonably infer from the complaint that Vullo coerced DFS-regulated entities to cut their ties with the NRA in order to stifle the NRA's gun-promotion advocacy and advance her views on gun control. Vullo knew, after all, that the NRA relied on insurance and financing "to disseminate its message." {Vullo's boss, Governor Cuomo, also urged businesses to disassociate with the NRA to put the organization "into financial jeopardy" and "shut them down."} …

The NRA's allegations, if true, highlight the constitutional concerns with the kind of intermediary strategy that Vullo purportedly adopted to target the NRA's advocacy. Such a strategy allows government officials to "expand their regulatory jurisdiction to suppress the speech of organizations that they have no direct control over." It also allows government officials to be more effective in their speech-suppression efforts "[b]ecause intermediaries will often be less invested in the speaker's message and thus less likely to risk the regulator's ire."

The allegations here bear this out. Although "the NRA was not even the directly regulated party," Vullo allegedly used the power of her office to target gun promotion by going after the NRA's business partners. Insurers in turn followed Vullo's lead, fearing regulatory hostility….

[F.] [N]othing here prevents government officials from forcefully condemning views with which they disagree. For those permissible actions, the Constitution "relies first and foremost on the ballot box, not on rules against viewpoint discrimination, to check the government when it speaks." Yet where, as here, a government official makes coercive threats in a private meeting behind closed doors, the "ballot box" is an especially poor check on that official's authority. 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….

Justice Gorsuch filed a one-paragraph concurrence concluding that courts should focus on deciding whether the plaintiff has "plausibly allege[d] conduct that, viewed in context, could be reasonably understood to convey a threat of adverse government action in order to punish or suppress the plaintiff 's speech," rather than trying to articulate any multifactor tests (as some lower courts have done in this area) elaborating on this core question.

Justice Jackson also concurred, highlighting the fact that some government coercion can directly stifle speech (for instance, when the government is coercing bookstores not to carry a book) while other coercion retaliates against protected speech (for instance, when the government is coercing financial intermediaries not to do business with speakers). Both may violate the First Amendment, but, she argued, they should be analyzed somewhat differently; read her opinion (PDF pp. 26-31) for more details.