A federal judge has granted an injunction to allow a planned protest during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in November, overturning Baltimore City’s decision to bar the rally over concerns that it would incite violence.
In an order issued late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander ordered the city not to block the group, which is identified in court documents as St. Michael’s Media but also goes by the name Church Militant, from holding a prayer rally on Nov. 16.
Hollander found that the group would “suffer irreparable harm, in the form of the deprivation of its right to freedom of speech and assembly” if prevented from renting the pavilion.
But the judge refused to set any court-ordered contractual terms for a rally. Hollander’s order said she “anticipates good faith negotiations, but expresses no opinion on the terms of a contract.”
She ordered a $250,000 bond as security and ordered St. Michael’s Media to verify that it has obtained $2 million in insurance.
The city filed an appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday.
“We are disappointed by the Court’s decision and potential threat to public safety if this event ensues,” said Cal Harris, a spokesperson for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott. “The proposed rally is slated to take place on Baltimore City property, and we have a responsibility to protect our property and fellow citizens.”
St. Michael’s Media responded quickly, indicating in a court filing that its effort to rent the MECU Pavilion for the rally was rebuffed again on Wednesday. The city has until Thursday morning to respond.
St. Michael’s Media Inc. claimed in its lawsuit that Baltimore City Solicitor James L. “Jim” Shea told the city’s events agent to cancel a contract that would have permitted the group to hold its protest at the MECU Pavilion, directly across from the bishop’s Fall General Assembly at the Waterfront Marriott Hotel scheduled for Nov. 15 to 18.
The planned speakers at the prayer rally were to include Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopolous, both far-right pundits with a track record of incendiary and hateful comments. The rally was also projected to have about 3,000 attendees.
According to the city’s response to the St. Michael’s Media lawsuit, Scott’s chief of staff, Michael Huber, instructed SMG, which operates the pavilion, to end discussions with the group about using the space because of concerns that the rally could bring violence.
“The City and Solicitor Shea’s sincere concerns about the propensity for disruption and violence due to Plaintiff’s event are not unfounded,” the city wrote in its response. “In fact, the Church Militant was an active propagandist for the claim that the November 2020 Presidential Election was stolen from Donald Trump.”
The city says the fringe group cheered on rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January. The city also said Yiannopoulos’ speaking engagements attract counterprotesters and have led to violence and property damage, while Bannon “regularly calls for violence against government officials.”
But the judge said the city “has presented somewhat shifting justifications for its actions, with little evidence to show that the decision was premised on these justifications.” The city seems to have based its decision on the “anticipated reaction” of counterprotesters possibly leading to violence at the rally, Hollander noted.
“The City’s invocation of a heckler’s veto also raises serious concerns that its decision was motivated by viewpoint discrimination,” she wrote. “The City cannot conjure up hypothetical hecklers and then grant them veto power.”
The judge also questioned the relevance of the city’s claims about St. Michael’s Media’s reaction to the Capitol riot.
“The City never accuses St. Michael’s of actual involvement in the events of January 6, 2021. Rather, it is critical of plaintiff for its coverage and support of the occurrence,” Hollander wrote.
Marc Randazza, an attorney for St. Michael’s Media, said he has no doubt that the rally will go forward as planned now that the judge has ruled in the group’s favor.
“The city’s conduct to date has already been constitutionally disgraceful, and I look forward to embarrassing them at the appellate court,” he told The Daily Record.
Yiannopoulos testified at a hearing that he has adopted a less caustic tone to his speeches in recent years and doubts any counterprotesters would show up at an event like the one that St. Michael’s wants to hold.
“There’s no one coming to protest me these days, which is a great relief,” said Yiannopoulos, now a paid columnist for St. Michael’s.
St. Michael’s offered to pull Yiannopoulos and Bannon from the list of rally speakers and let the city censor speeches, but the city rejected those overtures, Randazza said.
“I got the impression that there is a real heavy distaste and dislike for my clients, which I find baffling,” he added. “The greatest risk that will be at this (rally) will be either frostbite or somebody slipping and breaking a hip.”
Daily Record legal affairs reporter Steve Lash and The Associated Press contributed to this report.