The New York affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union is speaking out against the organization’s decision to represent the National Rifle Association in a Supreme Court case that tests whether the state violated the gun-rights group’s free-speech protections.
The ACLU announced on Saturday that its attorneys will officially take on the NRA’s case, which is pending before the nation’s top court and centers on whether a former high-ranking New York state official took steps to effectively blacklist the NRA within the finance industry.
In a statement, David Cole, the ACLU’s national legal director, stressed that the organization does not support the NRA or its mission — but instead seeks to prevent a potentially dangerous precedent where states can “effectively silence opposition advocacy groups.”
But the ACLU’s decision puts it directly at odds with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
In an interview with Gothamist, the NYCLU’s longtime Executive Director Donna Lieberman made clear her organization opposes the ACLU representing the NRA.
“We believe in defending the free speech rights of people we disagree with, even people we abhor, but there’s no need here for the ACLU to jump in to stand up in court as the lawyers for the NRA,” she said.
The ACLU has a long history of providing legal representation or assistance in cases that could infringe on civil liberties, including a long line of First Amendment cases centered on free speech.
At various points over the years, the ACLU has provided legal aid to organizations whose positions it otherwise doesn’t support — groups like the North American Man/Boy Love Association and the Ku Klux Klan — in cases where it has believed First Amendment principles were at risk.
The NRA’s case, meanwhile, focuses on former state Financial Services Superintendent Maria Vullo, and whether her efforts to warn financial institutions — which are regulated by her agency — about doing business with the NRA violated the organization’s right to free speech.
The NRA claims Vullo made “backroom threats” if the institutions continued to work with the organization, and that the organization was targeted because then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration despised its Second Amendment advocacy.
Much of the case focuses on a “guidance letter” Vullo sent the industry following the Parkland school shooting in 2018, in which she urged banks to consider the risks “that may arise from their dealings with the NRA or similar gun promotion organizations.”
If the NRA were to lose the case, Cole said it could “create both a precedent and a playbook for other states to effectively silence opposition advocacy groups.”
“We signed on as co-counsel because public officials shouldn’t be allowed to abuse the powers of their office to blacklist an organization just because they oppose an organization’s political views,” he said. “This is a violation of the organization’s First Amendment rights.”
Lieberman, on the other hand, said she doesn’t think the ACLU should be lending its name to the NRA, an organization with a long list of lawyers and a long history of fighting its own legal battles.
She also downplayed the case’s significance, calling it more of an “interpretation of the facts” than a potential precedent-setting case. It’s well established that the “government cannot use its muscle to retaliate against people for their beliefs,” she said.
Lieberman said she believes the ACLU is “letting itself be used by the NRA.”
“The ACLU doesn’t have to prove its First Amendment bona fides by standing up with the NRA that we all hate, that’s antithetical to everything we stand for,” she said. “The ACLU could have filed an amicus brief, it could have spoken in the media about the First Amendment rights at issue here. But no, they’re going to represent them as counsel. And that — to me, to the NYCLU — is wrong.”
The NRA’s case is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In his statement, Cole acknowledged that there “may be dissenting voices within the ACLU on this particular lawsuit.”
“As an organization committed to free speech, we believe this debate and dissent within the organization make us stronger,” he said.
Lieberman said the NYCLU spoke with the ACLU before it filed legal papers on the NRA’s behalf. The two sides “agreed to disagree,” she said.
“We felt it was important for us to speak out,” she said. “This is not who the NYCLU is.”