City mulling its options on public commentary; public commenter won’t be prosecuted after being arrested at county meeting

photo by: Screenshot of Lawrence City Commission meeting via YouTube

Lawrence city commissioners listen to a public commenter online who was using a fake and pornographic name during the City Commission meeting on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

Local government leaders, amid a number of lawsuits, are grappling with the question of public comment protocol at meetings, and incidents this week have illustrated some of the challenges they face.

On Tuesday, a frequent public commenter, using a fake and pornographic name, addressed city commissioners via Zoom with graphic references to fellatio, female genitalia and ejaculation. The commenter was not muted, and his comments were live on the city’s YouTube page, despite the City Commission having passed a resolution earlier this month that general public comment would no longer be broadcast. No commissioner at the meeting verbally objected to the pornographic commentary.

When asked the week prior why the city was apparently not following its resolution, Cori Wallace, a spokeswoman for the city, said the broadcast happened because a digital media specialist was out and no one else was able to handle the technical duties. However, when asked this week why the issue was continuing, Wallace said “we’ve been working to operationalize the direction of the resolution.”

“We’re still working on broadcasting logistics, and we have a few options that will address the challenges in ceasing the broadcast of public commentary that we’ve seen of late,” Wallace said in an email, without providing detail about the options.

The Journal-World reached out to all five city commissioners, but none responded.

The city is not legally required to permit public comment at its business meetings and can set its own rules regarding matters such as time limits and when the commenting can occur.

Last month, a City Commission meeting was derailed after multiple public commenters on Zoom engaged in racist and antisemitic hate speech, using the N-word, displaying a flaming swastika and calling another commenter a “f-cking c-nt.”

Other commenters at both city and county meetings, despite rules about commenting decorum, have repeatedly called public officials obscene names, made disparaging and personally shaming anatomical references and have insisted on addressing others in the room instead of commission members. At least one has bemoaned not being able to bring a gun into the commission room.

At Wednesday’s County Commission meeting, one commenter, Justin Spiehs, who has been arrested at a previous meeting, referred to the county administrator using the word “fatass” after reading a letter from Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez telling Spiehs that he would not be prosecuted after he was arrested at a May 1 county meeting for interfering with a public meeting. At that meeting, he carried a sign calling a commissioner a “pussy,” argued about warnings he had been given and stood in an area that meeting organizers wanted kept clear.

On Friday, Valdez’s office confirmed, without elaboration, that it has “declined to prosecute in this matter.”

One of the tactics the County Commission has used is to mute the microphone of public commenters who are disobeying rules, as happened Wednesday when frequent public commenter Michael Eravi argued with Commission Chair Karen Willey over whom he could address. Muting the mic, however, does not prevent the person from speaking, only from being heard by people watching virtually.

Spiehs, who has said he believes he’s being discriminated against because he is white, and Eravi have filed multiple lawsuits — now employing the same attorney, Linus Baker — against the city, county, library, school district and others, claiming that their First Amendment rights have been violated when they’ve been asked to refrain from belligerent, disruptive and slanderous comments.

At a recent city meeting, Eravi was warned by Mayor Bart Littlejohn to direct his comments toward commissioners as Eravi repeatedly called Police Chief Rich Lockhart the F-word and berated his demeanor. After multiple warnings, Eravi was kicked out of the meeting with the understanding that he would be arrested if he didn’t leave.

Last summer, Eravi was prohibited from attending City Commission meetings for 60 days, though he was allowed to participate virtually, after the city found that he had been asked to leave or had been removed from commission meetings no fewer than five times. A letter from City Manager Craig Owens to Eravi says that Eravi disrupted meetings and exhibited threatening and harassing behavior, including telling commissioners that he knew where they lived.

Government leaders have been reluctant to comment while litigation is ongoing. At least five of the lawsuits are still pending, but a federal judge’s recent ruling in Spiehs’ lawsuit against the city might prove a bellwether for the other federal lawsuits.

In that ruling, as the Journal-World reported, Judge Julie Robinson refused Spiehs’ request to order the commission to temporarily stop enforcing its speech policy at meetings, saying that Spiehs’ claims are unlikely to succeed on the merits.

Robinson wrote that the city has a “significant interest” in running orderly and efficient meetings, and 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 that apply to everyone.


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