Legal Experts Predict Tough Slog for NRA in Suit Against San Francisco

FILE- This Oct. 28, 2015, file photo shows the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline from the Marin Headlands above Sausalito, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Legal experts predict the National Rifle Association won’t get far in its lawsuit challenging San Francisco’s decision to brand it a terrorist group, but that could change if the city takes action against contractors that work with the NRA, according to one First Amendment scholar.

If the city cuts ties with contractors that do business with the gun rights advocate, “that would violate the First Amendment because it would punish people and entities for their association,” University of California, Berkeley, professor Erwin Chemerinsky said by email Tuesday.

But the city has not taken any action against contractors yet.

“It is not ripe for review,” Chemerinsky said. “Nothing has been done except a nonbinding resolution.”

Another law professor believes that even if San Francisco ended financial relationships with contractors, only the contractors themselves, and not the NRA, would have a legitimate First Amendment claim.  University of California-Hastings law professor David Levine said he doesn’t think the NRA would get far in suing over a “secondary boycott.”

“I don’t think the NRA can do much about it,” Levine said. “I think a better plaintiff would be a vendor saying you can’t do this to us.”

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors last week voted unanimously to label the NRA a terrorist group and “take every reasonable step to limit those entities who do business with the city and county of San Francisco from doing business with this domestic terrorist organization.”

The NRA sued in federal court Monday, calling the resolution an “unconstitutional abridgement” of its First Amendment right to free expression.

Levine finds it unlikely that a First Amendment claim will hold up in court because he does not believe the resolution prevents the NRA from voicing its beliefs.

“They can yell and scream,” Levine said. “They can take out advertisements. They can urge their own members to boycott San Francisco.”

Despite Levine’s skepticism about the NRA’s prospects for success, the organization has scored minor victories in court against other government policies that the NRA claims seek to punish it financially for its vociferous gun rights advocacy.

Last month, a federal judge indicated in court he will likely deny the city of Los Angeles’ motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging an ordinance that requires city contractors disclose their ties to the NRA. In November 2018, another federal judge refused to toss a lawsuit claiming the state of New York and insurers use selective enforcement to harm the NRA’s longstanding corporate relationships.

San Francisco Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who sponsored the resolution branding the NRA a terrorist group, told The New York Times on Monday she does not believe the suit will succeed because the board passed a “nonbinding” resolution, not an enforceable ordinance.

Before the board passed the resolution on Sept. 3, Stefani stated at a city meeting that “the NRA exists to spread disinformation and knowingly puts weapons in the hands of those who would harm and terrorize us by blocking common-sense gun violence prevention legislation.”

The NRA’s attorney William A. Brewer III called the resolution a “misguided and unlawful plan” to vilify the NRA just because city leaders disagree with its views on the Second Amendment.

“This action is an assault on all advocacy organizations across the country,” Brewer said. “There can be no place in our society for this manner of behavior by government officials.”

Responding to the lawsuit, a San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman said rather than going to court, the NRA should instead focus its efforts on supporting “common-sense safety measures,” such as universal background checks, banning assault weapons and restricting high-capacity magazines.

“It’s unfortunate the NRA would rather run to court than do something about the epidemic of gun violence in our country,” City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Cote said.

In its lawsuit, the NRA seeks a court order to block the city from taking any action that would diminish, terminate or interfere with its memberships, sponsorships, contracts and business relationships.

The NRA is represented in the action by William Noall of Garman Turner Gordon in Las Vegas.

This isn’t the first time San Francisco used the power of its purse to boycott entities that promote or enact policies deemed inconsistent with its progressive values. In July, the city expanded a ban on government-sponsored travel to states with anti-LGBT laws to include states that have passed restrictive abortion laws.

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