A conservative group can proceed with its planned protest to be headlined by alt-right provocateurs Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon at Baltimore’s MECU Pavilion this fall, according to an injunction issued by a federal judge Tuesday.
In her opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Hollander said conservative Catholic news outlet St. Michael’s Media likely would prevail in its argument that the rally’s cancellation by the city would infringe upon the group’s rights to free speech and assembly.
Hollander issued an injunction barring city and venue officials from blocking of the event.
City officials filed notice that they will appeal.
St. Michael’s Media, also known as Church Militant, sued Baltimore and several city officials last month after the city canceled the group’s planned protest at the city-owned pavilion. The event, also billed as a rally and prayer meeting, is scheduled to coincide with U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting at the nearby Marriott Baltimore Waterfront in November. Both Yiannopoulos and Bannon, the CEO of former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, were advertised as speakers.
City officials canceled the event in August, arguing there was a possibility of “significant disruption” due to the “characteristics of the location and the likely reaction to the planned program.” In a court filing, city officials argued they had a “legitimate fear” the rally “would incite violence in the heart of downtown Baltimore.”
St. Michael’s Media argued the city’s move violated the group’s First Amendment rights to free speech, expression of religion and assembly.
In her 86-page opinion, Hollander sided with city officials in their argument that the MECU Pavilion is a nonpublic forum. Unlike a public forum, access to a nonpublic forum can be restricted on the basis of subject matter or a speaker’s identity — but only if the reasoning is “reasonable” and “viewpoint neutral.”
St. Michael’s argued the city’s decision was not viewpoint neutral — an argument Hollander said was likely to prevail.
City officials cited “controversial, inflammatory speech by rally speakers, as well as plaintiff’s alleged support of the attack on the Capitol, as grounds for cancellation of plaintiff’s event,” Hollander wrote. “This is suggestive of viewpoint discrimination.”
Hollander raised concerns about the city’s “unbridled discretion” to intervene in bookings for the pavilion, and the use of the “heckler’s veto” as justification for canceling the event. A heckler’s veto is when free speech is regulated by the government because of an anticipated reaction by opponents to that speech. Courts have traditionally struck down such a defense.
“Without question, the city reacted to a perceived safety concern arising from past use of inflammatory remarks by some of the rally speakers,” Hollander wrote. “In thwarting the rally, the city essentially invoked or relied on the heckler’s veto.”
“The city cannot conjure up hypothetical hecklers and then grant them veto power,” Hollander added.
Hollander’s injunction requires St. Michael’s Media to obtain $2 million in insurance for the event — already a stipulation in the group’s preliminary contract with the venue — and obtain an additional $250,000 bond.
Cal Harris, spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Scott, said Wednesday the city plans to appeal the decision.
“We are disappointed by the court’s decision and potential threat to public safety if this event ensues,” he said. “The proposed rally is slated to take place on Baltimore city property, and we have a responsibility to protect our property and fellow citizens.”
Michael Voris, founder of St. Michael’s Media, said Wednesday the group “couldn’t be happier” with Hollander’s decision, which he described as “very thorough and extremely fair.”
Voris said the lineup of speakers for the event remains the same and plans are proceeding, although St. Michael’s officials are concerned about the timing of the city’s appeal.
When St. Michael’s officials contacted the MECU Pavilion Wednesday, officials there said they had been told to take no action by city officials. An emergency hearing on the subject has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday before Hollander.
“I think they’re just trying to run the clock,” Voris said. “They know they’re 4.5 weeks out.”
At a two-day court hearing this month, attorneys and witnesses for St. Michael’s Media argued the group poses no threat and argued the location of the pavilion is critical to sending their message against clergy sexual abuse to the Catholic bishops gathered nearby. Switching locations would “silence, soften, deaden” that message, argued Father Paul John Kalchik, a priest who planned to speak at the rally about sexual abuse he suffered.
Yiannopoulos also appeared in court and tried to assure Hollander 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.
Yiannopoulos said that the Baltimore event would be different from events he hosted “almost half a decade ago” because of the intended audience but also because of the current political climate. The days following the election of Trump in 2016 featured an “outbreak of screaming and rage,” he said.
Attorneys for the city argued the political climate following the 2020 election also has been divisive.
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.
The protest slated for this November has about 2,200 registrants so far.
Based in Michigan, St. Michael’s Media produces articles and videos about Catholic news around the world and is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. In the group’s writings, Voris says the organization defends morality. The group has called global warming “garbage” and criticized the Black Lives Matter movement. And the Southern Poverty Law Center considers St. Michael’s Media a hate group for its views on LGBTQ issues.