President’s Column | Should Politicians Be Allowed To Silence Groups Like The NRA?

by
posted on March 19, 2024
Charles L. Cotton

By the time you read this, the U.S. Supreme Court should have heard oral arguments in NRA v. Vullo, a case that could have far-reaching consequences, not just for your Second Amendment rights, but also for all the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Why? Because it could give government authorities a blank check to blacklist, and thereby attempt to silence, any political group with which they happen to disagree.

Before he resigned from office in disgrace, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Maria Vullo to head his New York Department of Financial Services (DFS), a body with vast licensing, rulemaking, investigative and enforcement authority.

As superintendent of DFS, in 2018, Vullo issued so-called “Guidance Letters” to banking and insurance companies, calling on them to take “prompt action” to consider the “reputational risk” of doing business with the NRA.

Companies who knew what was good for them knew this was no mere friendly suggestion: Since DFS could levy multi-million-dollar fines on firms that failed to do its bidding—including companies doing business with the NRA—those companies knew that what Cuomo, Vullo and the DFS had given them in those Guidance Letters was a suggestion they couldn’t refuse.

The same day that Vullo issued those Guidance Letters, she and Cuomo—who had called NRA “the enemy”—issued a joint press release that advised, “DFS urges all insurance companies and banks doing business in New York to join the companies that have already discontinued their arrangements with the NRA ... .”

As any businessperson knows, no organization can operate without banking and insurance services. But after Vullo and Cuomo sought to blacklist the NRA, multiple firms stopped offering their services to the Association.

What was the reason for Cuomo and Vullo’s campaign against the NRA? Apparently, their biggest objection was to the NRA “promoting guns,” as they put it.

Now—aside from the fact that the NRA doesn’t so much “promote guns” as promote and protect the Second Amendment right to keep and bear guns—the essence of “promotion” is advocacy. Advocacy is speech. The First Amendment protects that speech—particularly and especially political speech. And no variety of speech is more political than speech in defense of a constitutionally guaranteed, God-given fundamental right that can mean the difference between freedom or tyranny, survival or surrender. There is no more fundamental right of free people than the right of self-defense, so speech in defense of that right should have the highest level of protection.

Former NRA President Charlton Heston said, “The Second Amendment is, in order of importance, the first amendment ... the one right that protects all the others ... the one right that allows ‘rights’ to exist at all.” But that doesn’t mean the Second Amendment doesn’t also depend on the First. Freedom of speech, freedom of association, the right to petition government for a redress of grievances, and all the other rights enshrined in the First Amendment are crucial to protecting the right to keep and bear arms.

So when Vullo and Cuomo launched their campaign to silence the NRA, the NRA filed suit to stop them. The trial court upheld our First Amendment claims, but Vullo appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed our suit in 2022. Last year, we petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, and in November the court agreed to do so.

It’s worth looking at motives here. Shortly after the NRA filed suit, Gov. Cuomo publicly reiterated that the purpose of his regulatory actions against the NRA was to “shut them down.” In 2018, Cuomo said, “If I could have put the NRA out of business, I would have done it 20 years ago.”

It’s not hard to see where this kind of abuse of power can lead. So, it’s no surprise that more than 20 “friend of the court” briefs so far have been filed supporting NRA in these proceedings, from at least 26 states, at least 18 attorneys general and dozens of organizations from across the political spectrum, from the NRA to the ACLU.

As the amicus brief submitted by First Amendment Scholars concluded, “If Vullo’s tactics were permitted ... the next victim of regulatory retribution could be any organization with a message”—against conservative groups in blue states, against liberal groups in red states and everyone in between.

Free speech is a birthright that belongs to every one of us. The NRA will never surrender it!

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