Baltimore city officials can’t ban a conservative Roman Catholic media outlet from holding a prayer rally at a city-owned pavilion during a U.S. bishops’ meeting next month, a federal judge has ruled, saying the First Amendment right to free speech is “at the heart of this case."
U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander ruled late Tuesday that St. Michael’s Media Inc., also known as Church Militant, is likely to succeed on its claims that the city discriminated against it on the basis of its political views and violated its free speech rights.
The judge’s order says city officials can’t prohibit the pavilion’s manager from contracting with Michigan-based St. Michael’s Media to use the venue for a rally and conference it plans to hold on Nov. 16.
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.”
Cal Harris, a spokesperson for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, said the city will ask an appeals court to review the judge's decision.
“We are disappointed by the Court’s decision and potential threat to public safety if this event ensues," Harris wrote in an email. “The proposed rally is slated to take place on Baltimore City property, and we have a responsibility to protect our property and fellow citizens.”
The waterfront pavilion is across from a hotel where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is scheduled to hold its national meeting Nov. 15 to Nov. 18. St. Michael’s said it deliberately picked the date and location for its rally to coincide with the bishops’ meeting. The group also said it held a peaceful, city-permitted rally at the same site during the bishops’ national meeting in 2018.
An advertisement for the planned rally has touted speeches by former Donald Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon and far-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos.
The city says the gathering poses a threat to public safety, arguing 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, a lawyer 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.
St. Michael’s Media sued the city, its mayor and City Solicitor James Shea last month. The far-right outlet says it publishes news stories on its website about the Catholic Church and often criticizes church leadership.
The city says it instructed the contractor that manages the pavilion to cancel the event “out of a legitimate fear that it would incite violence in the heart of downtown Baltimore.”
“For a city like Baltimore, with a police department already stretched thin with a well-documented police officer shortage, the decision to cancel an event featuring a speaker who invites additional demonstrators, counter demonstrators, expenses, and potential violence is more than reasonable,” city attorneys wrote, referring to Yiannopoulos.
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."
In 2017, a confidant of Pope Francis specifically mentioned ChurchMilitant.com in an article condemning the way some American evangelicals and Roman Catholics mix religion and politics. The Rev. Antonio Spadaro’s article in a Vatican-approved magazine said the media outlet framed the 2016 presidential election as a “spiritual war” and Trump’s ascent to the presidency as “a divine election.”