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Baltimore loses appeal to stop Inner Harbor rally featuring Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon; group signs contract with city

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a decision by a federal judge to allow a prayer rally headlined by Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon to proceed at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor this month over the objections of Baltimore officials.

The decision, filed late Wednesday, does not delve into a legal discussion about the case, stating only that the ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Hollander has been affirmed.

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The conservative Catholic news outlet St. Michael’s Media signed a contract with a city vendor Thursday for its Nov. 16 prayer rally only hours after a three-judge panel from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the group’s favor, according to the Michigan-based media outlet’s attorney, Marc Randazza.

“Baltimore hopefully learned a lesson in First Amendment law that its taxpayers now have to pay for,” Randazza told The Associated Press.

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Hollander issued an injunction last month barring Baltimore officials from interfering with the rally to be hosted at the city-owned MECU Pavilion. St. Michael’s Media, also known as Church Militant, sued Baltimore and various city officials in September after they were informed that they would be denied access to the waterfront pavilion.

The event, billed as a rally and prayer meeting, is scheduled to coincide with a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting at the nearby Marriott Baltimore Waterfront. City officials objected to advertised appearances by Yiannopoulos and Bannon, both well-known political provocateurs, arguing that there was a “legitimate fear” the rally “would incite violence in the heart of downtown Baltimore.”

St. Michael’s Media argued that the city’s move violated the group’s First Amendment rights to free speech, expression of religion and assembly.

Paul Kalchik, left, St. Michael's founder and CEO Michael Voris, center, and Milo Yiannopoulos talk with a court officer before entering the federal courthouse Sept. 30, 2021, in Baltimore.
Paul Kalchik, left, St. Michael's founder and CEO Michael Voris, center, and Milo Yiannopoulos talk with a court officer before entering the federal courthouse Sept. 30, 2021, in Baltimore. (Gail Burton/AP)

In her 86-page opinion, Hollander sided with St. Michael’s Media, saying the group was likely to prevail in its argument that the rally’s cancellation by the city would infringe upon the group’s rights to free speech and assembly.

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While the 3,000-seat MECU Pavilion is a nonpublic forum to which access can be restricted based on a speaker’s subject matter, that restriction is only allowed if the reasoning is “reasonable” and “viewpoint neutral,” Hollander found. The city’s use of the speakers’ past controversial and inflammatory speech as justification for canceling the rally suggested “viewpoint discrimination,” Hollander said.

Baltimore appealed Hollander’s decision, sending the case to the 4th Circuit.

On Wednesday evening, Cal Harris, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, said in a statement: “We are disappointed by the Court’s decision and remain concerned about the potential public safety threat to Baltimore City property posed by the rally. Protecting Baltimore residents and their property is our top priority, however, we will abide by the direction of the courts.”

City officials and St. Michael’s Media have continued to spar over Hollander’s decision as the days left until the event continue to wind down. Last month, St. Michael’s Media filed and later withdrew a motion asking Hollander to hold the city in contempt of court for violating the injunction. Last week, the group filed a motion asking Hollander to enforce the injunction, arguing the city has not been negotiating a contract for the event in “good faith.”

At a two-day court hearing last month, attorneys and witnesses for St. Michael’s Media argued that the group poses no threat and argued that the location of the pavilion is critical to sending their message against clergy sexual abuse to the Catholic bishops gathered nearby.

Yiannopoulos himself appeared in court and tried to assure Hollander that the event will not devolve into violence as some of his past speaking engagements have. Those were “political speeches to political audiences in a fraught political environment,” he said, arguing that the events were “almost half a decade ago.”

St. Michael’s Media held a similar protest at the MECU Pavilion during the 2018 gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops without incident. That event, which did not include speakers Bannon and Yiannopoulos, attracted about 1,000 people.

Baltimore Sun reporter Phil Davis and Associated Press reporter Michael Kunzelman contributed to this article.

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