Judge delivers another defeat to public commenter; she allows city’s rules to stand, saying plaintiff unlikely to succeed on merits

photo by: Lawrence City Commission screenshot

Justin Spiehs speaks during public comment Tuesday, April 2, 2024, at the Lawrence City Commission meeting.

Updated at 11:50 a.m. Wednesday, April 10

A man who is suing the Lawrence City Commission and two former mayors suffered another defeat this week when a federal judge refused to order the commission to temporarily stop enforcing its speech policy at commission meetings.

The man, Justin Spiehs, is a frequent commenter at meetings, and on at least two occasions — in October 2022 and July 2023 — he was removed from meetings for violating city rules related to speaking on germane topics only and observing decorum.

Spiehs had sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing its rules until the court decides the merits of his federal civil rights lawsuit. Judge Julie Robinson declined to grant the temporary order, saying that Spiehs’ claims are unlikely to succeed on the merits.

On April 1, Robinson rejected Spiehs’ claim that the city’s speech policy is unconstitutionally vague and his claim that the city discriminated against him based on his viewpoint and the content of his speech. She dismissed those parts of his lawsuit for failure to state a claim, while allowing other parts of the suit, such as qualified immunity for defendants and equal protection issues, to go forward, as the Journal-World reported.

In her ruling on Monday, Robinson said that Spiehs’ claims that his First Amendment rights were violated were unlikely to succeed on the merits because of the city’s “significant interest” in running orderly and efficient meetings. Requiring that public comments be germane to the city and requiring commenters to abide by a decorum standard are narrowly tailored and content-neutral rules, Robinson wrote.

“The evidence shows that Larsen and Shipley applied the germane standard tolerantly,” Robinson wrote of former mayors Lisa Larsen and Courtney Shipley.

Robinson said there was no evidence that either mayor removed any speaker for “mere off-topic speech, but only for persistent off-topic speech, in contradiction of” the mayors’ directions.

Robinson said that Spiehs’ propensity to argue and his refusal to listen to and comply with the mayors’ requests created a decorum issue that, among other things, disrupted the meetings.

“The video evidence is clear,” Robinson wrote. Spiehs “had multiple opportunities to deescalate the situation, but chose not to.”

In the October 2022 meeting, Shipley warned Spiehs that his remarks about Donald Trump and Joe Biden, inflation and other topics were not germane. Instead of redirecting his comments, Spiehs argued with then-Mayor Shipley, calling her a Nazi, using profanity and claiming that he was being discriminated against because he is white. A police officer eventually removed Spiehs from the building, at Shipley’s request.

In the second meeting, in July of last year, Spiehs directed profanity at then-Mayor Larsen, spoke about school mask mandates and argued with Larsen when she attempted to get him to follow the commenting rules. Eventually, he was also removed from that meeting.

Spiehs, who frequently calls public officials obscene names as well as “idiots” and “child abusers,” has filed numerous federal lawsuits against government entities claiming that his constitutional rights are being violated. He has active suits against Douglas County commissioners, the Douglas County sheriff and county clerk, the Lawrence school district and school board members and the Lawrence Public Library.

Last week, Spiehs appeared at the Douglas County Commission meeting with a sign calling a commissioner an obscene name, and he belittled the commissioner in obscene language for a full three minutes regarding an issue that took place outside of a commission meeting. The County Commission says it reserves the right to remove any speaker whose comments are threatening, aggressively hostile or belligerent; however, Spiehs was not removed from that meeting.

Spiehs has two misdemeanor convictions on his record, including child endangerment, stemming from his actions at a November 2021 coronavirus vaccine clinic, as the Journal-World has reported.

In April 2022, he attended a County Commission meeting displaying a sign that read in part “(f-word) these liberal mother(f-word).” Spiehs was arrested at that meeting on a charge of disorderly conduct for aggressive behavior toward another meeting attendee. The disorderly conduct charge was dropped as part of Spiehs’ plea deal in the aforementioned child endangerment case, which had originally been charged as two felony counts of aggravated assault.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to clarify that Spiehs at one time faced a disorderly conduct charge for his behavior at the April 2022 County Commission meeting, but that charge was dropped as part of a plea agreement in another case.


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