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Federal judge hears fight over whether Baltimore can cancel event headlined by right-wing star Milo Yiannopoulos

A lawsuit filed over Baltimore’s attempt to block a conservative group’s use of the MECU Pavilion is in the hands of a federal judge following two days of courtroom action that included testimony from alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who tried to assure the judge the event will not devolve into violence.

U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Hollander declined to rule from the bench on the case Friday afternoon as arguments wrapped up, telling both parties she would make a ruling as quickly as possible given her schedule. Hollander is expected to begin an unrelated trial Monday.

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The fight pits the City of Baltimore, which owns the MECU Pavilion, against conservative Catholic news outlet St. Michael’s Media, which hoped to hold a November prayer rally in the space. The rally and protest, which was to coincide with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting at the nearby Marriott Baltimore Waterfront, planned a slate of speakers, including Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon, the CEO of former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Last month, Baltimore officials abruptly canceled the event, publicly citing the 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.”

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

Father Paul John Kalchik, left, St. Michael's founder and CEO Michael Voris, center, and Milo Yiannopoulos talk with a court officer before entering the federal courthouse, Thursday in Baltimore. U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander scheduled a hearing Thursday for the lawsuit that rally planners St. Michael’s Media filed against the city. St. Michael's claims city officials canceled the Nov. 16 rally because they disapprove of the group's religious message. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Father Paul John Kalchik, left, St. Michael's founder and CEO Michael Voris, center, and Milo Yiannopoulos talk with a court officer before entering the federal courthouse, Thursday in Baltimore. U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander scheduled a hearing Thursday for the lawsuit that rally planners St. Michael’s Media filed against the city. St. Michael's claims city officials canceled the Nov. 16 rally because they disapprove of the group's religious message. (AP Photo/Gail Burton) (Gail Burton/AP)

Officials with St. Michael’s Media, which publishes as Church Militant, testified Thursday that they pose no threat and argued the location of the pavilion is critical to sending their message against clergy sexual abuse to the Catholic bishops. 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.

Michael Voris, founder and CEO of St. Michael’s Media, said his group is nonviolent and intends no physical harm on the bishops, though he described many of them as “wicked.”

“I’m a practicing Catholic,” he said. “I in no way support violence against people.”

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But city attorneys have raised concerns about the possibility of clashes with counterprotesters they worry are likely to attend with Yiannopoulos and Bannon on the program. Yiannopoulos was slated to emcee the event while Bannon was expected to speak about financial malfeasance by the Catholic church, Voris testified.

Wearing a leopard-printed mask and a shock of bleached hair running down the back of his head, Yiannopoulos acknowledged several incidents of violence at his past speaking engagements. He testified that those were “political speeches to political audiences in a fraught political environment.”

Yiannopoulos said that the Baltimore event would be different from events he hosted “almost half a decade ago” because of the intended audience — older, faithful, more female, he said — 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.

Attorney Renita Collins, a solicitor for Baltimore, questioned Yiannopoulos on how the aftermath of the 2020 election is any different, noting the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Yiannopoulos said there’s no comparison.

“There has been much less of an outpouring after this election than the last,” he said.

Father Paul John Kalchik, left, St. Michael's founder and CEO Michael Voris, center, and Milo Yiannopoulos talk with a court officer before entering the federal courthouse Thursday. Switching locations would “silence, soften, deaden,” that message, Kalchik argued.
Father Paul John Kalchik, left, St. Michael's founder and CEO Michael Voris, center, and Milo Yiannopoulos talk with a court officer before entering the federal courthouse Thursday. Switching locations would “silence, soften, deaden,” that message, Kalchik argued. (Gail Burton/AP)

Testimony also was offered by James Derrane, a former FBI agent and expert witness presented by St. Michael’s Media, who said the event presented little threat to the public. Derrane submitted a security assessment to the court.

Derrane and other witnesses noted repeatedly that St. Michael’s Media held a similar gathering at the MECU Pavilion during the 2018 gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops without incident. The event attracted about 1,000 people. The event slated for this November has about 2,200 registrants so far.

Collins asked Derrane whether his research touched upon statements made publicly by Bannon and Yiannopoulos, including Bannon’s suggestion that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, should be beheaded and have his head put on pike outside the White House.

“I take that at face value as a rhetorical statement,” Derrane said of Bannon’s remark.

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.

Earlier this month, Hollander partially granted a temporary restraining order in the case stating that the city “shall not prevent St. Michael’s from conducting and making arrangements” for the rally as the case is heard in her court.

On Friday morning, both parties offered final arguments, which Hollander frequently interrupted as she peppered the attorneys with questions. The judge also asked Voris to briefly return to the witness stand where she asked him about how the presence of Bannon and Yiannopoulos will advance his cause of drawing attention to clergy sexual abuse. Voris said the pair would draw attention and notoriety.

“The witnesses testified so passionately about the cause,” Hollander later remarked. “It does seem like some of the speakers fly in the face of what this is really about.”

“If this is a prayer rally to give voice to the voiceless, what’s Mr. Bannon doing here?” she asked.

Hollander also expressed her displeasure that settlement talks between the city and St. Michael’s Media had fallen apart. On Thursday, Attorney Marc Randazza, representing St. Michael’s Media, said an offer was extended to the city to drop Bannon and Yiannopoulos from the program. But Yiannopoulos also testified Thursday that he planned to sue the city if he was forced to withdraw.

Voris testified Friday that he was now unwilling to remove Yiannopoulos from the program, noting that he has been a victim of clergy sexual abuse.

“I’m not going to victimize him again,” Voris said.

Collins objected to confidential settlement discussions becoming part of the public record. She also said she didn’t trust St. Michael’s Media to adhere to the agreement.

“We were right,” she said. “They don’t intend to withdraw their speakers.”

Hollander pledged to review the case carefully.

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“I think the issues are interesting but challenging,” she said before stepping down from the bench.

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