Federal judge dismisses First Amendment lawsuit against City of Lawrence

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Post updated at 3:49 p.m. Wednesday, July 10:

A judge on Tuesday dismissed a federal lawsuit that alleged employees of the City of Lawrence violated two residents’ freedom of speech. The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.

“We’re pleased with the court’s decision,” Lawrence City Attorney Toni Wheeler said via email Tuesday.

The lawsuit was filed in November by Phillip Michael Eravi, 54, owner of Lawrence Accountability, and Chansi Long, who was a reporter for The Lawrence Times at the time of the incident that was central to the lawsuit.

The Times had no involvement in the lawsuit, and Long was no longer an employee of the publication when it was filed. Long has since died, and she was removed from the lawsuit in January.

In spring 2023, Eravi and Long both frequently visited camps for people experiencing homelessness in Lawrence.

On March 21, 2023, police directed Eravi and Long 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 stated that later that night, a Lawrence police sergeant told Eravi that he “was being trespassed” under the order of Cicely Thornton, the city’s homeless programs project specialist.

In the lawsuit, an attorney 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.”

The suit alleged 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. 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, 2023.

In dismissing Eravi’s lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Julie A. Robinson wrote that “Plaintiffs impermissibly rest their claim not on the misuse of legal process after (the citation) was issued, but rather on the initiation of process. This alone is sufficient to dismiss Plaintiffs’ abuse of process claim for failure to state a claim.”

In addition, “It is evident from the face of the Complaint that there was probable cause for (the police officer) to issue Eravi a citation for trespassing,” she wrote.

Eravi had also filed a motion to amend the complaint and essentially combine this lawsuit with a separate one he filed in May.

In that case, Eravi alleges that Lawrence police retaliated against him for exercising protected speech, used excessive force, unlawfully arrested him and more in connection with his arrest on suspicion of interference with law enforcement. The criminal case is ongoing in Douglas County District Court.

Robinson wrote that “Plaintiff attempts to use consolidation as a backdoor to amendment.”

“The instant action raises questions of the First Amendment and the common law tort of abuse of process; the proposed Amended Complaint raises questions of the First Amendment, municipal liability, retaliation, the Fourth Amendment, and negligence,” Robinson wrote in the order. “The proposed Amended Complaint asserts no claim solely related to the homeless encampment incidents, and does not raise a single claim against Thornton.”

Eravi declined to comment on the dismissal. The attorney who recently took over the case and filed Eravi’s latest lawsuit, Linus Baker, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Michelle Stewart, of Lenexa-based Hinkle Law Firm, litigated the case for the city. City claims reports through Tuesday indicate the city has paid the firm $5,712 for work on this case.

The city still faces a separate lawsuit alleging First Amendment violations. It was also filed in November. The same judge last week ordered mediation in the case occur by Aug. 30.

Here’s the judge’s full order dismissing the case (click here to open it in a new tab):

20240709-Memorandum-and-order-Eravi-v-City

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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