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New York Official’s Free Speech Case Against N.R.A. to Be Heard by Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court announced on Friday that it would decide whether a state official in New York violated the First Amendment by encouraging companies to stop doing business with the National Rifle Association after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

The question of when government advocacy crosses a constitutional line to become coercion is already before the justices in another case. That one concerns the Biden administration’s contacts with social media companies to urge them to delete what the government views as misinformation about topics like the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election.

The new case, National Rifle Association v. Vullo, No. 22-842, concerns the activities of Maria Vullo, a former superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services. In the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Ms. Vullo said banks and insurance companies should consider whether they wanted to provide services to the group.

The N.R.A. sued, saying Ms. Vullo’s efforts leveraged government power in a way that violated the First Amendment.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, ruled against the N.R.A. Judge Denny Chin, writing for the panel, acknowledged that government officials may not “use their regulatory powers to coerce individuals or entities into refraining from protected speech.

“At the same time, however,” he wrote, “government officials have a right — indeed, a duty — to address issues of public concern.”

Ms. Vullo’s actions were on the right side of the constitutional line, Judge Chin wrote. Key documents, he said, “were written in an evenhanded, nonthreatening tone and employed words intended to persuade rather than intimidate.”

In its petition seeking Supreme Court review, the N.R.A. said the appeals court’s ruling could have sweeping consequences.

“The Second Circuit’s opinion below gives state officials free rein to financially blacklist their political opponents — from gun-rights groups to abortion-rights groups to environmentalist groups and beyond,” the petition said.

In response, lawyers for Ms. Vullo wrote that “the ability to opine on important questions of public policy is vital to the work of many government officials.”

The brief added that Ms. Vullo “did not violate the First Amendment by expressing her views regarding a national tragedy and encouraging regulated entities to consider their relationships with gun-promotion organizations.”

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