Two Lawrence activists have filed a federal lawsuit alleging freedom of speech violations by the City of Lawrence, two police officers and a city employee. It’s the second lawsuit of that nature filed against the city this week, following one from an anti-mask protester.
In spring 2023, Phillip Michael Eravi, 53, owner of Lawrence Accountability, and Chansi Long, 40, then a reporter for The Lawrence Times, both frequently visited camps for people experiencing homelessness in Lawrence.
The Times has no involvement in the lawsuit, and Long is no longer an employee of the publication.
On March 21, 2023, police directed them both to leave the city-sanctioned camp in North Lawrence following the discovery that a woman had died in her tent. Long left the area after being told to work outside the barriers of the camp.
The court filing states that later that night, Lawrence police Sgt. Ryan Robinson told Eravi that he “was being trespassed” under the order of Cicely Thornton, the city’s homeless programs project specialist.
In the complaint filed Wednesday in federal court, Sublette, Kansas-based attorney Joseph T. Welsh wrote that barring the two from the camp 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 of the City of Lawrence.”
According to the filing, Eravi began visiting three Lawrence camps after learning in fall 2022 that the City of Lawrence was seeking to eliminate the campsite in North Lawrence. Visits to the North Lawrence site as well as camps near Burcham Park and the Amtrak station at Seventh and New Jersey streets raised concerns for Eravi that the city was not meeting the needs of residents facing harsh winter weather.
The court filing indicates that by spring 2023, Eravi, the only person operating or working for his LLC, Lawrence Accountability, and Long had both published content that was critical of the city.
The complaint stated that by March 24, there were more than 300 videos posted to the Lawrence Accountability YouTube channel.
“Not surprisingly, most of the videos Lawrence Accountability posts to the Lawrence Accountability channel are critical of City, its police officers, its policies, its executive leadership, elected leaders and other City personnel,” Welsh wrote.
The suit alleges that the city and its employees committed abuse of process when Eravi was ordered to leave the camp on March 21 without a specific reason or a duration for the ban.
“Sergeant Robinson advised (Eravi) that his enjoinment from entering the homeless encampment was ‘permanent, until it is lifted by Cicely Thornton,’” Welsh wrote.
On March 23, Long received notice that she was no longer prohibited from entering the camp, according to the complaint. However, when Eravi returned and entered the North Lawrence camp on March 27, he was issued a citation for trespassing. The City of Lawrence dismissed the trespass action without prejudice on May 17.
The suit asserts that the summons issued for trespassing was made to harass Eravi and prevent him from publicizing issues facing camp residents “as retaliation for reporting” he had done regarding the city.
In addition to the City of Lawrence, defendants named in the suit are Thornton, Robinson, and Officer Skyler Richardson. Eravi and Long are seeking compensatory damages, attorney’s fees, costs, and “such other and further relief as this Court deems just and equitable under the circumstance.” The complaint closes with a request for a jury trial.
Earlier this week, Justin Spiehs, who has clashed with local and state authorities for more than two years, filed a civil suit alleging that the Lawrence City Commission and Lawrence Public Library have violated his freedom of speech and his right to equal protection under the law. Read more about that at this link.
A city spokesperson said via email Thursday morning that “We are not yet in receipt of a second complaint. We are unlikely to comment on pending litigation.”
The full complaint is below:20231115-Eravi-et-al-complaint
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Note: This post was updated to add the PDF of the complaint.
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.