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Baltimore’s First Amendment dispute with Catholic group rests on incomplete contract

St. Michael’s founder and CEO Michael Voris, left, and Milo Yiannopoulos, partially blocked, walk into the federal courthouse, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, 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 cancelled the Nov. 16 rally because they disapprove of the group’s religious message. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

The contract between a conservative Roman Catholic organization and the company that manages the MECU Pavilion in Baltimore was nearly finalized when city officials stepped in to cancel the event in August, citing concerns that the group’s planned rally could incite violence.

A federal judge has since found in favor of the event’s organizer, a group that goes by St. Michael’s Media in court filings and is also known as Church Militant, on First Amendment grounds.

But the lack of a completed contract with the MECU Pavilion’s management company remains an obstacle for the rally, which was scheduled to take place during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in November.

U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday in favor of St. Michael’s Media, finding that the conservative Catholic group was likely to win on its First Amendment claims.

The judge ordered the city not to block contract negotiations between SMG, which manages the MECU Pavilion for the city, and St. Michael’s Media.

Hollander did not, however, rule that SMG must contract with St. Michael’s Media. She found in her 86-page opinion issued Tuesday that the all-but-completed contract was not enforceable because it had not been finalized and executed.

“The Court anticipates good faith negotiations, but expresses no opinion on the terms of a contract,” Hollander wrote, concluding that she would not enforce the incomplete contract.

The city filed an appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday.

On Thursday the parties became embroiled in yet another disagreement: whether the city should be held in contempt because an SMG representative again rebuffed St. Michael’s Media in an email on Wednesday, after Hollander’s order.

St. Michael’s Media filed an emergency motion Wednesday asking Hollander to step in.

In a response filed Thursday morning, the city said the email was the result of a misunderstanding and that it did not instruct SMG to ignore the court order.
Hollander agreed at a hearing on the emergency motion Thursday afternoon.
SMG declined to finalize its contract with St. Michael’s Media because of a misunderstanding over the city’s plan to seek a stay of Hollander’s preliminary injunction, according to testimony presented at the hearing.
“We’re stuck in the middle,” said Teresa Waters, the booking and contracts manager for SMG, who testified at the hearing. “We need someone to tell us what we’re supposed to do and not supposed to do.”
The planned speakers at the November prayer rally were to include Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopolous, both far-right pundits with a track record of incendiary 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 to end discussions with the group about using the space because of concerns that the rally could bring violence.

“The City and Solicitor (James L. “Jim”) 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 Associated Press contributed to this report.