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Anti-mask protester sues Lawrence City Commission, library for allegedly violating his freedom of speech

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A Lawrence man who has clashed with local and state authorities for more than two years has filed a civil suit alleging that the city commission and public library have violated his freedom of speech and his right to equal protection under the law.

Justin Spiehs, 42, has been a familiar sight protesting in public places and regularly speaking during city and county commission meetings since mask mandates were put into place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the mandates were rescinded, Spiehs has been vocal against vaccines, abortion rights, transgender people and local governance.

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In documents filed Monday in federal court, Stilwell attorney Linus Baker detailed incidents of Spiehs being interrupted and asked to leave city meetings by commissioners. He wrote that at the library, Spiehs and several others were prevented from entering public events while carrying signs, and later Spiehs alone was asked to leave. The complaint indicates that Spiehs believes he is being targeted for his views.

“Spiehs was clearly the most infamous and antagonistic speaker appearing before the Commission prior to October 2022 and afterwards,” Baker wrote. “The defendants targeted Mr. Spiehs because of his status and viewpoints.”

Spiehs gained recognition in 2021 as a highly visible protester against mask mandates who could frequently be found among a group of picketers outside of schools or USD 497 offices at 110 McDonald Drive. That September he was involved in an altercation outside of Sunset Elementary School, when a driver stopped to pull the picket sign from Spiehs’ hands.

Just more than a month later, an altercation with a man and his 9-year-old son outside of a vaccine clinic at West Middle School led to Spiehs being arrested and charged with aggravated assault. He later pleaded no contest to reduced charges and was sentenced to one year of probation.

On April 20, 2022, the day before his preliminary hearing in the aggravated assault case, Spiehs was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct just before a Douglas County Commission meeting. A Douglas County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson later said that the arrest came after deputies observed Spiehs using “loud, rude and profane language” and for “actions directed at a resident” attending the meeting. Spiehs had come to the meeting carrying a large sign including lewd words to announce his intention to run for the District 1 Douglas County Commission seat. He later lost that election to incumbent Patrick Kelly.

The complaint includes transcripts from several Lawrence City Commission meetings where Spiehs brings up off-topic subject matter before being reminded that commission rules require that comments “should be limited to issues and items germane to the business of the governing body.”

In one exchange highlighted in the complaint, Spiehs repeatedly called then-mayor Courtney Shipley a Nazi before being escorted from the meeting by police.

Spiehs alleges that by using the word “should” instead of “shall,” there is ambiguity in the enforceability of the bylaw. Transcripts in the document appear to show that Spiehs has sometimes been allowed to speak, but at other times has been talked over, asked to stop speaking and removed from city commission meetings during his public comments. He asserts that other people offering equally tangential comments were not stopped or asked to leave, referring to ejection from meetings as “the Justin Spiehs treatment.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Justin Spiehs

The complaint specifically notes that Spiehs attempted to speak during a July commission meeting about an article he had read on mask mandates, but Mayor Lisa Larsen said his comments were not germane to the commission. She asked Lawrence police to escort him out. However, during the Nov. 7 meeting — after a group of community members spoke to the commission about a topic the mayor initially said was not germane, but then allowed them to speak — Spiehs was allowed to speak about the same article that he hadn’t been allowed to talk about months prior.

“Depending on the whim, mood, animosity, political position of a defendant Mayor on any particular open meeting, speakers such as plaintiff Spiehs may engage in speech to the Commission without interruption and then, at a different Commission meeting, the same speech is suppressed with consequences of punishment of ejection from the building,” Baker wrote.

Spiehs also alleges that ejecting him from city meetings and preventing him from reentering to air his grievances is dangerous and that it equates to prior restraint, meaning his freedom of speech was preemptively prohibited.

“The actions of the defendants were unreasonable, not narrowly tailored because prospectively banning a speaker without proof of dangerousness interferes with the speaker’s right to interact with elected representatives,” Baker wrote in the complaint.

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The 45-page complaint outlines seven counts. In addition to the city commission and board of directors of the public library, Spiehs filed individual counts against Shipley and Larsen, who served as mayor in 2022 and this year, respectively, as well as five library staff members and one “unidentified library security guard.”

The lawsuit alleges that Spiehs’ civil rights were violated at the library on two separate occasions. In the first incident, Spiehs and an associate attempted to enter the library in May to protest a public event to help transgender Kansans change the gender markers on their government identification. Spiehs and his friend were stopped by library staff at the door, and police later told them they would not be allowed to enter because the signs they carried, which displayed anti-transgender messages, were obscene, the complaint alleges.

Less than a month later, Spiehs and three of his friends again arrived at the library to protest an event featuring a drag artist reading stories and performing for all ages in the library auditorium. Although Spiehs and all three friends were allowed into the auditorium, once they were seated, Spiehs picked up his sign to display during the event. A security guard again summoned police, who told Spiehs that he would be cited for trespassing if he didn’t leave. Spiehs’ friends, who said they didn’t have any signs, were allowed to stay.

In the complaint, Baker alleged that Spiehs was again targeted because of his beliefs.

“The Library … purposed to suppress Mr. Spiehs’ expression merely because public officials oppose his view on the topics being discussed at those two library events,” he wrote.

Spiehs is seeking actual and nominal damages from those named in the suit, as well as punitive and exemplary damages. He asks the court for injunctions to prevent the commission and library from ejecting people from meetings or events, and to find that the commission’s policy and the library’s behavior policy are “unconstitutionally void and unenforceable.” The complaint closes with a request for a jury trial.

A city spokesperson said the city clerk had not yet received the complaint as of Tuesday morning.

The full complaint is below: 

20231113-Spiehs-v-City-et-al-complaint

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Andrea Albright (she/her), reporter, can be reached at aalbright (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

Note: This post was updated to add the PDF of the complaint.

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Anti-mask protester sues Lawrence City Commission, library for allegedly violating his freedom of speech

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