Ex-Douglas County Commission candidate sues Lawrence for alleged free speech violations

Justin Spiehs called a Lawrence official a Nazi and railed against Democrats at the city’s public comment session

By: - November 14, 2023 8:35 am

Justin Spiehs at a rally in support of transgender rights May 5, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

A frequent critic of Lawrence city government who called the town’s mayor a Nazi and was arrested for assault while protesting a children’s vaccine clinic has filed a federal lawsuit alleging he was illegally thrown out of public meetings.

Justin Spiehs, who ran unsuccessfully for Douglas County Commission, filed a lawsuit Sunday in U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, claiming violations of his First Amendment right to free speech.

Spiehs gained notoriety in town for vitriolic protests of pandemic-era mask requirements at the Lawrence School District and the Kansas Capitol. He was also arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly threatening people with a sign post at the entrance to a vaccine clinic. He pleaded no contest and received a year’s probation, according to the Lawrence Times.

In his lawsuit, Spiehs says members of the Lawrence City Commission have repeatedly removed him from comment sessions based on arbitrary determinations that his comments weren’t germane to city business. But other speakers, he contends, have been allowed to continue.

The lawsuit argues city officials viewed Spiehs as “a leader, troublemaker and instigator of all kinds of mocking, vulgar, vitriolic, repugnant, hateful, personal and offensive speech” directed at members of the commission by other speakers. 

“The defendants targeted … Spiehs for disparate treatment in retaliation to punish him and make him an example to those other speakers and the rest of the Lawrence viewing public,” the lawsuit says.

Spiehs did not immediately return a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for the City of Lawrence said the clerk’s office had not received the complaint.

Spiehs’ attorney, Linus Baker, said commissioners “targeted” Spiehs and called their actions “vindictive.”

Baker himself has sued Blue Valley Schools and the state over immunization requirements, according to the Kansas City Star. He also represented a parent who was removed from an Olathe School Board meeting, according to KCUR, under circumstances similar to those of Spiehs.

“They think that little public meeting is their own little fiefdom,” Baker said of Lawrence officials. “They want it to be the kind of talk they want. They don’t want to hear the other side.”

Spiehs’ lawsuit also names leaders at the Lawrence Public Library as defendants for refusing to allow him to attend an event meant to help transgender people change gender markers on their legal documents. He was barred from the event for carrying a sign that said: “If you have a d***, then you are not a chick.”


Tossed from meetings

Whether Spiehs can make it through his public comments without being removed from the meeting, the lawsuit says, depends on the “whim, mood, animosity, (and) political position” of Lawrence’s mayor.

While at a meeting in October 2022, Spiehs was permitted to criticize the mayor for driving a large SUV while proclaiming a day earlier that month to be “Lawrence drive electric day,” discuss his campaign for county commission and complain about taxes. But he was escorted out of a meeting just weeks before.

Spiehs began that speech comparing the inflation and interest rates and gas prices during former President Donald Trump’s time in office to those at the time of the October 2022 meeting. He started to talk about the stock market when then-Mayor Courtney Shipley cut him off. 

“Mr. Spiehs,” Shipley said, “is there some way this city commission has control over the NASDAQ?”

Spiehs responded: “Yeah, I just said I’d like to make a proclamation, please, Nazi. Thank you.” 

Shipley attempted to stop Spiehs again before asking him, “Are you ready to be removed?”

They continued to argue back and forth as Shipley said Spiehs comments weren’t germane to city business.

Spiehs said: “I’d like to make this a proclamation that the city consider how asinine the Democrats are so thank you.” 

Spiehs continued to attempt to make his speech, calling Shipley a Nazi. 

Eventually, Spiehs was removed from the meeting by law enforcement. 

“F*** you. You’re a Nazi,” he said on his way out.

“The disparate treatment is apparent: for those not named Justin Spiehs, the mayor displays remarkable restraint for the speaker’s viewpoint but not so for the plaintiff Spiehs,” the lawsuit says.

In July, Spiehs spoke at City Hall and accused now-Mayor Lisa Larsen of misgendering the person who spoke before him before launching into a tirade against mask mandates.

He was then repeatedly interrupted by commissioners saying “point of order.” 

Larsen said Spiehs wasn’t talking about issues relevant to the commission. 

“Horse s*** I’m not,” Spiehs said. 

Larsen replied: “And you are done.”

Spiehs replied Larsen had “got to be kidding.” He was removed from the meeting. 

Just last week, the lawsuit notes, Spiehs spoke on the issues related to masks that previously got him kicked out.

“You’re not going to stop me. Why aren’t you stopping me?” he said. “It’s the same topic. You going to escort me out of here? Now what’s changed? What’s changed?” he said.

At the library event, the lawsuit says, Spiehs wasn’t allowed entry, and multiple employees gathered to keep him and his friend who was carrying a sign that said, “God didn’t get it wrong. There are only 2 genders” out of the auditorium where the event to help transgender Kansans with documents was taking place. 

Spiehs’ lawsuit also complains he was pressured to leave a library event where a drag queen read to children because he and several friends held signs that said, “This is wrong” and “Stop grooming kids.” One, targeting the performer, Deja Brooks, said, “Deja is a soul-less parasite.” 

During the event, Spiehs and his friends silently displayed their signs, the lawsuit says. The security guard at the library said the group was being disruptive.

When Lawrence police arrived, Spiehs complied and left the library, according to the lawsuit. His friends, without signs, were allowed to stay. 

Spiehs’ lawsuit claims several First and Fourteenth Amendment violations by the city and library.

He’s seeking damages as well as court orders preventing defendants from kicking him out of meetings for speaking off topic or removing him from library events for holding signs; barring the city from enforcing its ban on non-germane speech and prohibiting the city and library from enforcing speech prohibitions.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.