Oklahoma Supreme Court denies legal challenge to Trump rally

The plaintiffs had argued that having that many people inside the arena could cause coronavirus infections to surge in Tulsa.
Image: Tulsa, Oklahoma Prepares To Host Trump Rally On Saturday
President Donald Trump's supporters sleep early morning June 19, 2020 while lined up to attend Saturday's campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla.Win McNamee / Getty Images

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By Pete Williams and Dareh Gregorian

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday denied a request to order a Tulsa arena to enforce federal recommendations for preventing the spread of the coronavirus at President Donald Trump's campaign rally.

The groups suing could not establish a clear legal right to the order they were seeking, the court said in a unanimous, one-page order.

The suit was brought by Tulsa businesses and residents who wanted coronavirus safety precautions, such as social distancing and face masks, to be mandated for the rally, which is scheduled for Saturday. The legal bid was initially denied by an Oklahoma judge on Wednesday, leading lawyers for the plaintiffs to turn to the state Supreme Court for help.

"It's madness to let this event go forward," the lawyers argued in a phone conference Thursday.

They noted that the courts aren't allowing full trials because of coronavirus safety restrictions.

"If it's not safe to have 12 citizens in a jury box, how is it safe to have 19,000 people together?" one of the lawyers argued, referring to the Bank of Oklahoma Center, the arena the rally is being held in.

Lawyers for the company that owns the arena countered that Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt had given the event a greenlight, and said the BOK Center has asked the Trump campaign to follow the state's rules on coronavirus safety measures.

The BOK Center has no legal requirement to enforce distancing or masks. The only state rule in force says business owners must use their discretion and best judgment.

“For a lack of any mandatory language,” wrote Justice Douglas Combs, “we are compelled to deny the relief requested.”

“It is not the duty of this court to fashion rules or regulations where none exist, simply to achieve a desired outcome,” said Justice Dustin Rowe.

The campaign has said it will have coronavirus measures in place, including temperature checks for attendees on their way in, and hand sanitizer stations inside. Masks will also be available for all attendees, but they won't be required to wear them

Officials are trying to make sure it's safe outside the venue as well.

Stitt, a Republican, has activated the state's National Guard ahead of the campaign rally to "provide assistance to local law enforcement" for the event, which is expected to draw over 100,000 people to Tulsa.

The 250 Army National Guardsmen will "supplement Tulsa area law enforcement in the event of rioting that leads to the potential for loss of life or property" and will "work at the direction of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol," state Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Geoffrey Legler said in a statement Thursday.

The Trump has said that over 1 million people have requested tickets for the event at the BOK Center, which holds 19,900.

Legler said government officials believe that 100,000 or more people will be in the downtown area "protesting both for and against the president’s policies."

Mayor G.T. Bynum issued an executive order declaring a civil emergency and establishing a curfew around the BOK Center starting at 10 p.m. Thursday and running through 6 a.m. Saturday and then going from the end of Saturday night's rally until 6 a.m. Sunday.

In the order, Bynum said, “I have received information from the Tulsa Police Department and other law enforcement agencies that shows that individuals from organized groups who have been involved in destructive and violent behavior in other States are planning to travel to the City of Tulsa for purposes of causing unrest in and around the rally.”

But Bynum announced Friday that he was nixing the curfew, saying he had put in place at the request of Tulsa's police chief, who had consulted with the Secret Service.

"Today we were told the curfew is no longer necessary, so I am rescinding it," the mayor said.

Trump tweeted Friday afternoon that the people who've been waiting on line for his rally were exempt from Bynum's order.

"I just spoke to the highly respected Mayor of Tulsa, G.T. Bynum, who informed me there will be no curfew tonight or tomorrow for our many supporters attending the #MAGA Rally. Enjoy yourselves - thank you to Mayor Bynum!" the president wrote.

Earlier in the day, Trump had a more ominous message for people who aren't his supporters, warning that demonstrators heading to his rally will be treated more harshly than they had been during recent George Floyd protests in cities run by Democrats.

In the tweet, Trump equated protesters with "agitators" and "lowlifes."

"Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis," the president's post said. "It will be a much different scene!"

In an interview with NBC News' Kristen Welker on MSNBC, Marc Lotter, the director of strategic communications for Trump's campaign, insisted that "the president supports peaceful protests and people who are exercising their First Amendment rights."

"But if we see what we’ve seen in other cities with rioting, looting, setting buildings on fire and physical violence," Lotter said, "that's going to be something that would be met by police and it would be handled appropriately."

In her press briefing Friday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump was referring only to "violent protesters," although his tweet didn't make that distinction.

Trump tweeted a more upbeat message about the rally shortly after his "lowlifes" post.

"Big crowds and lines already forming in Tulsa. My campaign hasn’t started yet. It starts on Saturday night in Oklahoma!" he wrote.

The rally will be Trump's first since coronavirus shut down much of the country.