Lawrence Times reporter Chansi Long was targeted by city staff and ordered by police to leave the North Lawrence campsite for people experiencing homelessness Tuesday night while other members of the public were allowed to remain. “That’s a problem,” a local First Amendment expert said.
It was a tragic night at the campsite as residents had just found a 36-year-old woman dead in her tent. It wasn’t clear how long she had been dead, but the last time residents could recall seeing her was Saturday — three days prior.
Long has reported on the campsite and the people who have lived there since it opened in the fall. Residents contacted her and asked her to come to the campsite shortly after they made calls to 911 on Tuesday, so she set out to interview people and try to find out what had happened.
Long said she spoke with a “devastated” camp resident who had been close to the woman who died, and she was trying to compassionately approach others who knew the woman. She said she did not attempt to talk to police working at the scene because she’s learned they won’t speak to reporters, instead directing questions to a department spokesperson.
After about 15 minutes, a city staff member approached her and told her that she was not welcome there. Moments later, police told her to leave.
Lawrence police Sgt. Drew Fennelly, in an email Tuesday night, disputed the article we published, which included information about Long being ordered to leave the site. “We responded to a request by City staff to have multiple persons moved to the edge of the property of an active death scene, which is what was requested of those that were not staying at the camp,” he wrote, asking for the article to be corrected. Except that wasn’t what happened.
“That’s absolutely untrue. That’s ridiculous,” Long said of Fennelly’s email. “… They were not asking other people to leave. They were asking me to leave.”
A video recording of the interaction shows that Officer Shawn Daubert told Long the city has the authority to tell people who do not live there that they need to leave. Specifically, he said Cicely Thornton, the city’s homeless programs project specialist, had directed him to tell Long to leave. Daubert told Long to go behind the barricades that sit at the entrance to the camp, far from the people she was hoping to speak to. She stated that she was a reporter with The Lawrence Times, and she was trying to do her job.
Daubert did not give a reason for asking Long to leave, other than that Thornton, who manages the site, had the right. He did not say Long was interfering in any investigation. And Long said no camp residents had indicated that they wanted her to leave, or that she was making anyone uncomfortable.
“Let’s go out there, and I’ll be glad to talk to you. Right now, they’re saying they want you up there,” Daubert told Long, gesturing toward the camp entrance. But he didn’t go that direction. Long said she waited at the entrance for about 10 minutes to ask Daubert questions, and he never came out. Her access to residents was cut off, and she was unable to continue gathering information, so eventually she left.
It was unclear Wednesday whether Long would be legally allowed to return to the campsite.
Long said several employees of the Lawrence Community Shelter and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center showed up. But a local activist and other non-residents who were not employees of the city’s partner organizations were also allowed to stay at the site.
There were also residents of the “unsanctioned” campsite present. That’s the land about 30 feet north of the city-sanctioned site; as Long has reported, residents whose tents are on the “unsanctioned” site have not been consistently allowed to use the hygiene trailer recently placed there. The woman found dead on Tuesday was staying at the city-sanctioned site.
Michael Eravi, a local activist who runs the YouTube channel Lawrence Accountability and is known to city staff and police, was nearby Long when this occurred and recorded the interaction. He was not directed to leave at that time, though he was permanently banned later Tuesday night under threat of arrest.
Nancy Snow, a philosophy professor who has been volunteering and bringing donations to the campsite for months now, wrote in a letter to the Times on Wednesday that police allowed her to come near the gurney where the woman’s body lay and say a prayer. One officer thanked her, she wrote.
The situation raised questions about a violation of the First Amendment.
“If the facts are that city personnel allowed some members of the public and not others to be on the scene — and your reporter, of course, was exercising her First Amendment right to gather news — then yeah, there’s no question about this,” said Max Kautsch, Lawrence media lawyer and president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government. “That’s a problem because whatever regulations were applicable in this situation were not applied evenly to all members of the public. The government cannot pick and choose which voices to amplify and which voices to silence.”
Kautsch said that on city-owned property that is not traditionally available for members of the public to express their views or has been designated as a forum for speech by the government, such as the North Lawrence campsite, the city can impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions for members of the public to be present. But they must apply equally to everyone.
Fennelly also objected to our use of the word “forced” regarding how Long was ordered to leave the site. There was no physical force involved, but “What happens if you argue with a cop in a situation where you’re being approached that way? You’re gonna get arrested,” Long said. It also wasn’t conducive for her to argue, she said, because people nearby were already upset and she didn’t want her presence there to become harmful.
“My number one principle is ‘Do no harm,'” Long said. “… If my presence, because of the situation, is becoming harmful, if they want me to leave, then I’ll leave. I have to leave.”
But no one who lives at the campsite ever asked Long to leave on Tuesday, she said. One resident asked her to come back to his tent to talk to him again, but she had already been ordered to leave.
If she’s not allowed beyond the barricades at the entrance, she will be unable to see whether people she can’t reach by phone are at the site and available for an interview. Long said she is worried that residents will start to fear speaking out after this, because many of them are dependent upon city staff members for resources. City staff members are often present near the entrance of the camp, and people might not want to speak to a reporter in their presence.
“That can create a whole climate where they don’t want to talk to press because it could be bad for them — they can get repercussions somehow,” Long said.
As of publication time, the city had not responded to questions we sent via email at noon Wednesday, including:
• Why was Long ordered to leave the support site?
• Does the city believe this is a reasonable restriction on time, place and manner to require a member of the press to leave an area where other members of the public are allowed to stay? Why or why not?
• Does the city see this as a content-based restriction? Why or why not?
• Is Long allowed to go back to the support site to continue her reporting?
Update, 5:35 p.m. Wednesday: In an email response sent 10 minutes after this article was published, Laura McCabe, a spokesperson for the city and police department, wrote that ”Your reporter was not trespassed. She was respectfully asked to move to an appropriate area during an active death investigation. The designated area also contained camp residents and she was not prevented from conducting interviews for her story.” McCabe did not address the questions we asked.
Update, 6:39 p.m. Wednesday: Long attempted to visit the campsite Wednesday afternoon and was not allowed past the entrance area of the camp near the barricades, told that no visitors were allowed.
She said, and the recording from Tuesday night showed, that at the point when city workers initially told her to leave, she was in the area by the barricades — so the city’s statement that she was asked to move to a “designated area,” the same area where she had already been standing when first told to leave, was contradictory.
The Lawrence Times brings the truth to light and fights to protect freedom of the press.
Please support our work.