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Government Coercion to Suppress Speech: How the principles of NRA v. Vullo could apply to your church

The recent Supreme Court opinion in NRA v. Vullo reaffirmed a long standing First Amendment principle: the government cannot threaten legal action against a third party to suppress an individual, or organizations, disfavored speech.  

In NRA v. Vullo, the Defendant, Maria Vullo, was head of the New York Department of Financial Services. This department has oversight authority over insurance companies and financial services institutions who do business in New York. The department is empowered to investigate regulated entities, initiate civil enforcement actions, and refer regulated entities for criminal prosecution.

Following the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida, the NRA alleged Ms. Vullo used her position as head of the Department of Financial Services to punish and suppress the NRA’s advocacy. The case alleges Ms. Vullo met with and pressured large corporate insurances carries who serviced the NRA to cease doing business with them. The complaint further alleges Ms. Vullo threatened enforcement actions against these insurance carriers unless they ceased doing business with the NRA. As a result, the insurance companies ceased to provide coverage to the NRA and the NRA brought this lawsuit.

In a unanimous opinion, the United States Supreme Court held government officials violate the First Amendment when they use the “power of the State to punish or suppress disfavored expression.” The Court noted government officials are free to make clear their personal stance on contested issues. However, this becomes problematic when the official uses the power of their office to suppress speech they disagree with.

For example, a mayor is free to say they vehemently oppose the NRA, or other pro-Second Amendment advocacy. However, they are not free to also say any business in the city who hosts an NRA event will be severely punished. 

At present churches and nonprofit organizations can face similar targeting across the United States. Whether for their stance on human sexuality, abortion, or any other politically contentious issue, it is not a stretch to imagine a similar scenario developing where a local government official sets out to silence their speech. Such examples may include threatening business who host meetings for churches or Christian groups, such as Younglife, to cease providing space; taking action against individuals or businesses who host advertisements or directional signs for these organizations; or writing into to permits to business requirements that they not host such disfavored speech on their premises as a cost of receiving the subject permit. 

In any of these cases, the steps taken by the government could cross the line from persuasion to coercion. This determination generally depends on the facts of each individual case. It is therefore important if you or your organization feel the government has suppressed your speech to consult with an attorney. The attorney can evaluate your situation and present options for moving forward. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich PLC are experienced in evaluating and litigating religious liberty disputes, and are happy to put our experience to work for you. If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact us and we would be happy to speak with you. 

About Dalton + Tomich

Established in 2010, Dalton + Tomich PLC is comprised of religious liberty, land use, denominational trust law, and business law attorneys. Learn more about our services at https://www.daltontomich.com/.

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