EXCLUSIVE: Montana AG Urges SCOTUS Not To Let Gov’t Officials ‘Financially Cripple Their Political Opponents’

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Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen urged the Supreme Court Tuesday to reverse a lower court ruling that found a New York official did not violate the First Amendment by pressuring banks and insurers not to do business with the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed in 2020 the NRA’s First Amendment lawsuit against former superintendent of New York’s Department of Financial Services, Maria Vullo, finding it did not prove she “crossed the line between attempts to convince and attempts to coerce.” Knudsen, joined by 22 other states and the Arizona state legislature, told the Supreme Court in an amicus brief Tuesday that allowing this ruling to stand means “government officials will likely employ similar tactics to stifle disfavored speakers.”

“The Second Circuit’s decision gives government officials license to financially cripple their political opponents, or otherwise stifle their protected speech—whether those rivals advocate for environmental protections, school choice, abortion rights, religious liberty, or anything else,” the brief argues.

Knudsen told the Daily Caller News Foundation that “free speech is one of the greatest privileges we have as Americans.”

“No organization should be financially impacted because of political disagreements with government officials,” he said. “Using mafia-style tactics, anti-gun government officials in New York have trampled on that right by threatening companies for doing business with organizations that defend our right to keep and bear arms. No official should have that power – it’s a blatant violation of the First Amendment.”

Knudsen led attorneys general from 17 other states in April in asking the Supreme Court to take up the case. The justices agreed to hear it in November. (RELATED: Abortion, Trump And Censorship Headline Supreme Court’s Docket In The New Year)

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The brief argues that the Supreme Court’s precedent, such as in its 1963 Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan ruling, clearly shows that “Vullo’s politically motivated campaign against the NRA crossed the line from persuasion to impermissible coercion.”

“Bantam Books rejected a myopic focus on whether officials expressly threaten adverse consequences, instead focusing on whether officials’ statements and conduct cross the line between permissible persuasion and impermissible coercion,” the brief states. “To do that, courts consider all relevant context, including the official’s actual (or apparent) regulatory authority, the specific language in the official’s statements, and whether the targeted individuals or entities reasonably perceive the statements as threats.”

Along with NRA v. Vullo, the Supreme Court is set to consider a case this term challenging the Biden administration’s coordination with social media companies to suppress speech online, Murthy v. Missouri.

“Even a cursory review of this Court’s docket—which includes a case addressing a related First Amendment state action issue arising when state officials pressure social media platforms to suppress disfavored speech — shows that free speech concerns are top of mind,” Knudsen wrote in the brief. “Beyond this Court’s docket, examples abound of the waning influence of our historically robust commitment to free-speech values, including episodes of students across the country shouting down and disrupting events with controversial speakers.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced in December that it would represent the NRA in its case, writing in a statement that “government officials can’t punish organizations because they disapprove of their views.”

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