The National Rifle Association (NRA) bills itself as the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. For those opposed to its mission, such a claim is laughable, but the right to keep and bear arms is a constitutionally protected civil right. However, right now, the NRA is actually fighting to defend a different civil right.
You see, circumstances have forced the organization to step up and defend freedom of speech, mostly because their own free speech has been undermined.
The Wall Street Journal has a nice synopsis of what transpired:
Maria Vullo led the New York State Department of Financial Services, which has broad power to regulate almost every major financial player in the U.S. After the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Ms. Vullo and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a press release stating that the department would “urge” the insurers, banks and companies it regulates “to review any relationships they may have with the National Rifle Association” for “reputational risk.”
The goal was to punish the NRA for its gun-rights advocacy. The press release quoted Ms. Vullo as saying that corporations need to “lead the way” on “positive social change . . . to minimize the chance” of future shootings. “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.”
The gun rights advocacy group alleges that Vullo made it very clear while talking to insurers that this was about the NRA’s work in Second Amendment issues. The NRA generally opposes gun control and is generally regarded by gun control advocates as the biggest obstacle to passing such laws.
Vullo, using her position as a regulator for the insurance and financial industries, sat down with Lloyd’s of London, the company that backed the NRA’s Carry Guard insurance, and reportedly told them to basically drop the NRA as a client or face real problems.
The NRA’s program ran afoul of some insurance regulations. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. However, they weren’t alone. It seems these violations were semi-common. Vullo simply targeted the NRA because of their advocacy work.
This then led to their corporate insurance provider dropping them due to apparent risk, thus making it more difficult for the organization to function.
And this is a huge problem, regardless of how you feel about the NRA itself. You see, government-backed intimidation isn’t functionally any different than laws themselves. That’s especially true when that intimidation seeks to undermine a fundamental right.
Governmental entities at either the state or federal level have way too much power as it is, but that’s highlighted when they can try to bully businesses into adopting certain policies. Especially since the government doesn’t even have to win in court to punish a business. Just putting up a fight can bankrupt many.
Which is why Vullo’s actions are so incredibly problematic. By virtue of her comments alone, she pressured companies to sever ties with an entity simply because they stood on the wrong side of an issue.
As noted by the Journal, this isn’t constitutional:
In Bantam Books v. Sullivan (1963), officials from the Rhode Island Commission to Encourage Morality in Youth sent letters to booksellers informing them that it had identified certain books and magazines as “objectionable” and noting its power to recommend obscenity prosecutions. The U.S. Supreme Court held that this “informal censorship” violated the First Amendment. Although the government didn’t seize or ban any books, it “deliberately set about to achieve the suppression” of protected speech.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between what regulators from Rhode Island did with Bantam Books and what Vullo did with Lloyd’s of London and, by extension, the NRA.
It’s also a reminder of why regulations can be so problematic in general.
While many see regulating the financial industry as a good thing, few would be in favor of regulators trying to pressure that same industry to adopt policies that hurt organizations they support. Imagine, for example, if this same bullying was done with Planned Parenthood or Greenpeace.
Some might claim that this is different, but it’s really not. The NRA was targeted because of their political advocacy, advocacy that officials in New York vehemently disagreed with. That was it. Despite Vullo’s reported acknowledgment that the issues weren’t unique to what the NRA was doing, no one else has apparently been targeted.
That’s not about regulation, but intimidation, and if it’s permitted, someone will use it against their opponents on the other side of the aisle. Unless it’s put in check, no organization will be able to afford to advocate for anything not in line with the party in power’s agenda.
This is why the NRA’s fight is ultimately important for all of us.