2 residents sue City of Lawrence, claiming First Amendment violations after they were trespassed from North Lawrence homeless camp
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World
Two Lawrence residents filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the City of Lawrence and various municipal employees, claiming that their First Amendment rights were violated when they were trespassed from the North Lawrence homeless camp where a resident had just been found dead.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Kansas by attorney Joseph T. Welsh, of Sublette, on behalf of Michael Eravi and Chansi Long. Eravi is known in Lawrence for attending government meetings and speaking during public comment periods, as well as for filming law enforcement officers in the line of duty. Long is a Lawrence resident who worked for the news website The Lawrence Times during the period discussed in the lawsuit.
In the suit, Eravi claims that he and Long were trespassed from the North Lawrence camp on March 21. They were at the camp in response to the death of 36-year-old Ashley Sawyer, who died of a drug overdose, according to an autopsy report.
Police were investigating the death at the camp, which had a no-visitors policy. As the Journal-World reported, the city began more strictly enforcing that policy and requiring residents to sign agreements to that effect the next month.
Eravi claims he was invited to the camp by Jenn Wolsey, an advocate for the homeless community and former Lawrence Homeless Programs coordinator until she resigned in January. Eravi believed Wolsey invited him to the camp to “provide aid and comfort to grieving individuals” and to document the city’s response to the death, according to the suit.
Wolsey, contacted by the Journal-World Thursday, said she called Eravi “to provide sympathy and support to those who needed it, but I didn’t ask him to check what the city was doing.” Wolsey, who was out of state that night on vacation, said she also contacted Long and other “advocates.” Wolsey noted to the Journal-World that she was no longer employed by the city at that point but was acting as a concerned citizen.
The suit says that Long, acting as a reporter, was invited to the camp by someone living there to document what happened and what services the city was providing for camp residents.
While Eravi was at the camp he began filming for his YouTube page and posted a video while on site. Eravi identifies himself as a “YouTube Partner” who earns advertising revenue for the videos he posts, according to the suit. The YouTube page, operated under the name Lawrence Accountability LLC, is also named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which specifies that the LLC “does not employ any employees and the only individual involved in its operations is Michael (Eravi).”
Shortly after Eravi and Long arrived at the camp, Lawrence police officers asked them to leave on behalf of the city employees working there. Police requested that Long perform her reporting duties from outside of the camp’s fence line, and police approached Eravi and said he was being issued a trespass order at the request of Cicely Thornton, the city’s homeless programs project specialist, according to the suit.
Thornton and two police officers are also named as defendants in the suit.
Eravi’s trespass at the site was permanent, while Long was allowed to return to the camp a few days later. Eravi attempted to enter the camp again on March 27 and was issued a trespass citation, which was later dismissed, according to the suit.
The suit claims that by ordering Eravi and Long to leave the camp the city violated their First Amendment rights “to speak, the right to listen, the right to photograph and record, and the right to associate and assemble with other residents.” The suit also claims the city committed an “abuse of process” that was done in “retaliation” against Eravi “for reporting Michael had done regarding (the) City.”
The suit seeks “compensatory damages, attorney’s fees, costs sustained herein, and for such other and further relief as this Court deems just and equitable under the circumstance.”
In a separate incident at the camp, Eravi was convicted on Sept. 21 in Lawrence Municipal Court of criminal trespass. He was fined $173 including court costs and sentenced to 90 days in the county jail, which was suspended, according to court records. He has appealed that conviction in Douglas County District Court.
Eravi is also facing a felony interference with law enforcement charge after he allegedly forced officers from their protected positions during an armed stand-off in May, as the Journal-World reported. He is next scheduled to appear in court for a status conference in both cases on Nov. 22.
Earlier this week, another regular public commenter, Justin Spiehs, filed a suit against the city and the Lawrence Public Library, claiming that his constitutional rights were violated when he was treated differently from other commenters at City Commission meetings and when he was asked to leave two events at the library after displaying “obscene” signs, as the Journal-World reported.
As the Journal-World reported, Spiehs was convicted in 2022 of two misdemeanors, including endangerment of a child, in connection with an incident in November 2021 when he was protesting at a coronavirus vaccine clinic at West Middle School and confronted a man and his 9-year-old son. He was granted probation in that case.
The Journal-World reached out Thursday to the city for comment, but has not received a response.