Federal Judge Rules Baltimore Cannot Block Church Militant Rally

Hollander said the decision to cancel the rally was made based on the “anticipated reaction” of a crowd.

Skyline and inner harbor of Baltimore, Maryland.
Skyline and inner harbor of Baltimore, Maryland. (photo: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock)

BALTIMORE — A federal judge has ruled that Baltimore city officials cannot block the parent company of the website Church Militant from holding a rally during a meeting of the U.S. bishops in November. 

St. Michael’s Media, Inc., the parent company of Church Militant, had planned a “Bishops: Enough is Enough” prayer rally to coincide with the fall meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference in Baltimore, which is scheduled for Nov. 15-18. The rally had been scheduled for Nov. 16, at the city-owned MECU Pavilion. 

On Aug. 5, the company managing the venue informed St. Michael’s that it could not host the rally, by order of the city. The city cited safety concerns, and city officials later argued in court that they moved to cancel the event due to controversial speakers and the event’s planned size. They warned of possible “disruption and violence” that could result from the rally.

Among the advertised speakers at the rally were Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopolous. Both speakers have attracted significant controversy and protests at past speaking events.

In her Oct. 12 opinion, federal district Judge Ellen L. Hollander found that the city had “presented somewhat shifting justifications for its actions, with little evidence to show that the decision was premised on these justifications” in blocking the request for a rally permit. Hollander granted a preliminary injunction against the actions by city officials. 

In a complaint filed on Sept. 13, St. Michael’s Media claimed the event cancellation happened without warning, and said that there was months of communication with the venue without incident. 

As part of its argument that the event posed a security risk, the city cited a Church Militant broadcast where host Michael Voris had referred to those who “stormed” the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as “patriots.”

Hollander said the decision to cancel the rally was made based on the “anticipated reaction” of a crowd. “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,” she said. 

“The City cannot conjure up hypothetical hecklers and then grant them veto power," she wrote.

The city appealed the ruling to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday.  

Cal Harris, a spokesperson for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D), 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.”

Church Militant held a similar rally at the MECU Pavilion during the 2018 USCCB fall general assembly. There were no incidents of violence.  

St. Michael’s Media is a 501(c)4 corporation in the state of Michigan. The nonprofit operates the website Church Militant. Church Militant, which is run by Michael Voris, is a website that has been the subject of criticism from some bishops. 

In 2011 the Archdiocese of Detroit announced that Voris was not authorized to use the word “Catholic” in reference to his media project “Real Catholic TV.” 

In a Sept. 23 memorandum in court, city officials cited previous statements of rally speakers Bannon and Yiannopoulos to make their case that the rally posed a security risk. Bannon had previously said on a podcast that he would “put the heads” of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray “on pikes. Right. I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats.”

Regarding Yiannopoulos, the city noted he had previously “incit[ed] racist and misogynistic abuse of an African American celebrity,” called for “gunning journalists down,” and addressed rallies that coincided with riots and disruption. Yiannopoulos has said that his comment about shooting journalists, made in a text to a reporter, was a taunt of reporters and not an incitement to violence. 

He also had “a history of making comments advocating for pedophilia,” the city argued. Yiannopoulos was disinvited from the event CPAC in 2017, following reports of previous comments he had made suggesting that consensual sexual relationships between teenagers and adults could be beneficial. He responded at the time that he did not support pedophilia, and was “not referring to prepubescent boys” in his comments. He has said he is a survivor of child sex abuse.

In Yiannopoulos’ testimony in the case, Hollander wrote that he “called the City’s accusation of pedophilia ‘revolting’ and ‘grotesque.’”

“Although he acknowledged his history of ‘biting commentary,’ which is sometimes quite ‘caustic,’ he maintains that he is not the provocateur that he once was,” Hollander wrote of Yiannopoulos. “Moreover, he expressly condemned the use of violence,” she added.

Regarding his role at the Nov. 16 event, Yiannopoulos testified that he would function “primarily” as “emcee,” Hollander noted.

“He recounted that he was ‘raped’ by a priest, and he wants to speak about his experience to help others confront their abusers and the enablers,” Hollander noted. “He stated that the Catholic bishops are not his ‘enemy,’ but he views some of them as ‘very lost’ and ‘failing in their pastoral duties,’ and he believes they deserve to be held ‘to account.’”

“The First Amendment to the Constitution is at the heart of this case,” she stated. The city “acted on an ad hoc basis” in canceling the event, “without any standards,” Hollander said. Thus, St. Michael’s “is likely to succeed on its claim that the City’s conduct was not viewpoint-neutral.”

Regarding the city’s arguments of a security concern, she noted, “There are, no doubt, true emergencies in the life of a city, when officials must act immediately to protect life and property.”

“But, the matter at hand does not constitute an emergency,” she wrote.

This story was updated after posting.

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