Alleging free speech violations, regular public commenter and anti-mask protester sues Lawrence City Commission and library board
photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot
A Lawrence man known for commenting at public meetings about mask policies during the coronavirus pandemic has filed a federal lawsuit alleging violations of his free speech rights and naming two Lawrence city commissioners, the City Commission as a whole, the Lawrence Public Library board and several library employees.
Justin Paul Spiehs, 42, alleges in the lawsuit filed this week in the U.S. District Court of Kansas that members of the Lawrence City Commission, Lisa Larsen and Courtney Shipley, have repeatedly violated his right to free speech by preventing him from speaking during commission meetings since 2021 because his topics were not “germane” to city business. The suit was filed on Spiehs’ behalf by attorney Linus L. Baker, of Stilwell.
Spiehs claims his First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights have been violated by the city. The 14th Amendment specifically prohibits U.S. states from denying “equal protection of the laws” to people in their jurisdiction. Spiehs’ suit is claiming that the City Commission violated this right by treating other public commenters differently than him. The suit alleges that while his comments were deemed not germane to city business, other commenters were allowed to speak at City Commission meetings about topics that weren’t related to city business.
The suit also alleges that Spiehs’ First Amendment speech rights were violated by Lawrence Public Library staff, and it names the library board of directors and multiple library employees. According to the suit, Spiehs attended two public events at the library, one in May and the other in June, carrying signs and was asked by police and the library’s security personnel to leave. At the May event, which was about how new state laws affected gender markers for transgender people, the suit says police were called after Spiehs arrived, “and it was determined that Mr. Spiehs’ sign was ‘obscene'” and that he could not be at the library with the sign; he exited the building after police arrived. At the June event, which featured a drag performer reading books aloud, the suit claims that Spiehs was told by security that he couldn’t cause a disruption at the event, and he left when two law enforcement officers showed up at the library.
Spiehs is asking the court to prevent the City Commission and the library from removing him from events and meetings solely for speaking about things that are “off topic” or for carrying a sign “containing protected speech.” He is also seeking an “award of punitive and exemplary damages,” according to the suit.
The Lawrence City Commission requires comments by members of the public to be germane to city business, among other restrictions. Last week, Larsen briefly discussed public comment issues with the Journal-World after a group of residents used the public comment period at a City Commission meeting to ask commissioners to craft a resolution publicly calling for a ceasefire in the Israeli-Hamas conflict. She said that determining what is germane to city business is subjective, and the city doesn’t have a policy that provides clear guidelines on the topic. Instead, she said commissioners are given wide latitude to make that determination.
Commissioners have discussed whether they want to change the commission’s public comment procedures, and while Larsen did not specifically bring up any of those ideas last week, she did say it was important that the meetings primarily serve a purpose of allowing the commission to conduct city business.
As the Journal-World reported, Spiehs has been convicted of criminal charges in Douglas County for an incident that took place at one of his protests. In November 2021, Spiehs was protesting at a coronavirus vaccine clinic at West Middle School, 2700 Harvard Road, and allegedly confronted a man and his 9-year-old son. Spiehs was accused of tearing the paper off of his protest sign, shouting at the man and child and threatening them with the large stick that the sign was attached to. He was originally charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault and one count of interference with a law enforcement officer, but in 2022 he entered a plea agreement and was instead convicted of two misdemeanors, endangerment and endangerment of a child. He was granted probation in August 2022, as the Journal-World reported.
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World