Lawrence man sues city, library over banning his ‘mocking,’ ‘vitriolic’ public comments

(The Sentinel) — A Lawrence man is suing the Lawrence City Commission, the commissioners individually, the Lawrence Public Library, and several library employees over what he says is viewpoint discrimination — a violation of the First Amendment.

Justin Spiehs, through his attorney Linus Baker, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the commission and the library board refused to allow him to speak at the meetings because the commissioners and members of the library board disliked his opinions.

The lawsuit states the city commission has routinely taken positions on such issues as “Indigenous Peoples Day, Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Persons, National Health Center Week and LGBTQ+ Pride Month.”

“Plaintiff Justin Spiehs has historically been the most infamous and outspoken of all of the many public speakers appearing at the Commission’s open meeting public speaking sections,” the lawsuit reads. “At all relevant times, Mr. Spiehs’ speech was protected speech and concerned matters of public concern and was truthful.”

The filing concedes that Spiehs’ “speech to the individual Commissioners at these meetings has been, and is viewed by the defendants, as mocking, vulgar, vitriolic, repugnant, hateful, personal, and offensive to those Commissioners,” and that it “emboldened other public speakers to also engage in the same kind of protected speech to the Commission expressing viewpoints the Commission did not appreciate or like.”

In 2022, the Commission created a written “public forum” policy that stated public speakers’ comments must be “germane to the business” of the commission. The lawsuit claims this is so vague as to “provide no meaningful guardrails as to its interpretation by a presiding Mayor” — meaning presiding mayors can effectively shut down any speech they do not like.

Indeed, the Lawrence Journal-World reported in November that several protestors came to a commission meeting to urge the city to adopt a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, and “some commenters went so far as to say that a failure to support a resolution calling for a ceasefire would put the city on the side of genocide.” Yet, while there was no discussion of such a resolution, and Mayor Lisa Larsen said there were no plans to bring it up at a later time — which would seem to indicate the matter was not “germane” to city business — the commenters were allowed to continue for an extended period.

The lawsuit notes that after the meeting, Larsen noted to the Journal-World that “the issue of what is considered a germane topic is very subjective, and the city doesn’t have a policy that provides clear guidelines on the topic. Instead, she said each commission is given wide latitude to make that determination, which she said can be difficult.”

The lawsuit also notes that in written comments, another man was allowed to use extreme vulgarity and was not removed from the meeting — as has happened to Spiehs.

“Spiehs has been a frequent and consistent speaker on a wide range of topics including criticizing the defendant Commission and Mayors’ policies, ethics, and competency,” the lawsuit reads. “Because of Mr. Spiehs’ viewpoints contained in his prior constitutionally protected activity, the defendants targeted Mr. Spiehs with adverse consequences that would chill a person from engaging in appearing before the Commission to speak.”

Spiehs alleges he was subjected to similar behavior at the Lawrence Public Library, including forcing him to leave a “Drag Artist” event at the library for — along with friends — silently displaying signs in protest of the event, which was for children.

Spiehs is alleging violations of his rights under the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment and is asking for the court to declare the various comment policies in violation of the Constitution.

“The First Amendment gives its citizens the right to not only criticize public officials but also the right to say things government officials do not agree with,” Spiehs’ attorney Linus Baker said in an email statement. “This First Amendment lawsuit is important to all citizens of Kansas who want to address their grievances and opinions at open meetings conducted by city, county, or school boards and those opinions should not be censured or punished because that governing body disagrees with the citizen’s message.

“This lawsuit seeks to preserve the fundamental First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and the right to redress government which will benefit all citizens of Kansas appearing to speak at municipal and school boards across the state. On both issues the City of Lawrence and the Lawrence public library have repeatedly violated those sacred rights of the plaintiff Justin Spiehs.”


Spiehs’ First Amendment complaint mirrors Olathe case

The lawsuit bears striking similarities to the case of Jennifer Gilmore of Olathe, who was removed from an Olathe Board of Education meeting in 2022. Gilmore, who ran for a seat on the Olathe Board of Education in 2021 and lost by 65 votes, was awarded $1 by the jury. The Kansas City Star reports that after a four-day trial earlier this fall, a jury found her First Amendment rights were violated when she was prevented from speaking during the meeting last year when then-president of the board Joe Beveridge disliked her views.

The verdict came after the Olathe school district spent $300,000 on attorney’s fees.

“The Board majority sought to cover up Beveridge’s wrongdoing by spending over $300,000, and counting, of the taxpayers’ dollars in this lawsuit,” Gilmore’s attorney, Linus Baker, said in a statement. “In the end, the board majority spent $300,000 to avoid paying Ms. Gilmore one dollar.”

The Star article states the “jury did not find that punitive damages should be assessed against Beveridge. In order to find that Beveridge should pay damages to Gilmore, the jury would have needed to agree there was proof he acted with evil motive or intent, or reckless indifference to her rights, according to court documents.”

U.S. District Judge Holly Teeter had previously denied Gilmore’s attempt to request damages against the district and school board, but the $1 in nominal damages acknowledges that her First Amendment rights were violated.

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