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Goldwater to Supreme Court: Government Can’t Punish Political Opponents for Free Speech

May 23, 2023

The government’s job is to safeguard fundamental rights, not weaponize its power against political opponents who say things the government doesn’t like. But New York state officials abused their power to punish the National Rifle Association (NRA) for exercising its constitutional right to free speech, so today the Goldwater Institute filed a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the NRA’s First Amendment freedoms.

For over 150 years, the NRA has educated Americans in responsible gun ownership and advocated for the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. But some of the most powerful government officials in the state of New York wanted to silence the nation’s largest Second Amendment advocate. In 2018, these officials began an intimidation campaign against the NRA’s business partners, threatening them with legal sanctions unless they cut ties with the NRA.

The NRA sued, arguing these officials—including then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s then-chief financial regulator, Maria Vullo—violated its First Amendment rights by threatening to investigate or punish insurance companies that did business with the group. The trial court upheld these claims against multiple motions to dismiss, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed these rulings, concluding that Vullo could not be held liable because she did not explicitly threaten to punish the NRA’s business partners. The appeals court ruled this way despite the fact that Vullo and other officials applied immense pressure on the businesses, via thinly veiled threats and insinuations, to cut ties with the NRA.

Today the Goldwater Institute filed an amicus brief in support of the NRA, asking the Supreme Court to step in and declare that government officials can’t punish individuals or groups for their free speech by bullying others into cutting ties with them. In its brief, Goldwater pointed out that millions of Americans are subject to the same kind of “informal censorship” that happened here. That’s because they, like the NRA’s former business partners, live and work under complex regulatory regimes where bureaucrats can easily use investigations, licensing decisions, and other forms of red tape as weapons against those whose beliefs and ideologies they disapprove of.

Goldwater described to the Supreme Court just how many different fronts this battle is being fought on: “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) initiatives and “environmental, social and governance” (ESG) regulations, for instance, often serve as pretexts for bureaucrats to punish disfavored political beliefs. Vague terms like “misinformation” give bureaucrats the power to censor speech they disagree with. Convoluted, intrusive donor disclosure laws let the government intimidate those who support advocacy on issues of public importance. Cities even use complex zoning regulations and sign code provisions to silence advertising by local businesses during mega-events like the Super Bowl.

In these areas and others, powerful government regulators are increasingly using informal means of censorship to silence speech. But across the country, Goldwater will never stop fighting to defend Americans’ free speech and their rights to live, and earn a living, free from excessive government overreach.

You can read our brief here.

John Thorpe is a Staff Attorney at the Goldwater Institute.



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