Supreme Court’s Unanimous Ruling in NRA v. Vullo Another Win for Nonprofit Advocacy

June 6, 2024 | Luke Wachob

On May 30, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in NRA v. Vullo, reinstating the gun rights organization’s lawsuit against former New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) Superintendent Maria Vullo. All nine justices agreed that the NRA had plausibly alleged violations of its First Amendment rights through Vullo’s aggressive efforts to pressure banks, insurers, and vendors into cutting ties with the group. The ACLU represented the NRA in the case.

“Government officials cannot attempt to coerce private parties in order to punish or suppress views that the government disfavors,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the Court.

The facts alleged by the NRA demonstrate the many levers of power government officials have at their disposal to undermine advocacy groups they oppose. In one closed-door meeting, Vullo allegedly told an insurance market representative that she would let them slide on various legal violations if they agreed to stop offering insurance products to the NRA. Vullo also sent “guidance letters” to companies subject to her regulatory authority in which she “encourage[d]” the recipients to re-evaluate the risks of doing business with the organization. In a press release announcing the letters, Vullo and then-Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) went so far as to urge “all insurance companies and banks doing business in New York” to sever their relationships with the NRA.

The Supreme Court’s decision noted that “Vullo was free to criticize the NRA and pursue the conceded violations of New York insurance law. She could not wield her power, however, to threaten enforcement actions against DFS-regulated entities in order to punish or suppress the NRA’s gun-promotion advocacy. Because the complaint plausibly alleges that Vullo did just that, the Court holds that the NRA stated a First Amendment violation.”

The case came to the Court at the motion to dismiss stage, meaning the Court accepted as true the NRA’s factual allegations. Now that the lawsuit has been reinstated, the NRA will have to overcome arguments that Vullo’s actions were protected under the doctrine of qualified immunity. Nevertheless, the Court’s 9-0 ruling in NRA v. Vullo offers a strong articulation of the First Amendment rights of nonprofit groups to engage in public advocacy without being threatened or suppressed by government officials.

If the Court would have ruled differently, nonprofits with views spanning the ideological spectrum would be at risk. Gun rights and conservative organizations were most vulnerable in blue New York, but nonprofits that advocate for abortion or immigration services could easily suffer the same treatment from a Republican official in a red state. Even groups that avoid controversial issues could find themselves under assault if they got on a powerful public official’s bad side, perhaps by criticizing the official’s actions or opposing their policy agenda.

NRA v. Vullo is one of several cases before the Court this term that involve issues of government jawboning or retaliation against speech. For example, Murthy v. Missouri centers on claims that the federal government violated the First Amendment in its efforts to pressure social media companies to censor conservative viewpoints. Gonzalez v. Trevino concerns an alleged retaliatory arrest of a 72-year-old woman who organized a petition to remove the city manager.

These cases may not directly implicate nonprofit donor privacy – the mission that animates People United for Privacy Foundation and our sister organization, People United for Privacy – but they illustrate why it matters. Each case presents a scenario where government officials allegedly abused their power in different ways to chill the speech of specific groups or speakers whose views they oppose. Donor disclosure laws, which are rooted in Jim Crow-era efforts to suppress civil rights activists, are one of the most powerful tools for this type of abuse.

To be heard in a country of over 330 million, Americans rely on their freedom to join with fellow citizens through nonprofit organizations that advocate for their beliefs on issues both controversial and mundane. Private giving and a strong First Amendment are essential for nonprofits to serve this function. Otherwise, corrupt government officials can easily wield the many powers at their disposal to intimidate citizens, businesses, and labor unions into ceasing their support for disfavored causes. In this way, free speech could be crushed without politicians ever passing a law that explicitly censors speech.

As PUFPF works to defend the rights of nonprofits to speak freely without fear of retaliation against their members and supporters, the Court’s unanimous ruling in NRA v. Vullo is a welcome statement of principle. Government pressure aimed at silencing nonprofit advocacy violates the First Amendment, even when directed at third parties. Now, we wait and see how the other First Amendment cases before the Court this term shake out.