Legal institute warns that attempts to bar opposition on Westwood park are unconstitutional

WESTWOOD, Kan. (WIBW) – A statewide organization dedicated to Kansans and their First Amendment rights has warned the governing body of a Kansas City suburb that attempts to bar opposition to a new development are unconstitutional.

The Kansas Justice Institute says that on Nov. 8, the City of Westwood sent a “threatening” cease-and-desist letter to opponents of the proposed controversial development of a public park.

In the letter, the City demanded objections to the park cease, whether online, on social media or through door-to-door canvassing. It noted that refusal to comply with the City’s terms would leave “no other choice” but to sue for “tortious interference” and “slander of title.”

The Justice Institute indicated that the dispute involves the proposal to sell the Joe D. Dennis Park to a real estate development company to create a mixed-use office and retail space. Opponents have argued that a state statute gives residents a right to petition to put the approval of the sale to a vote.

The City noted that the proposal includes plans for a new park that is about three times larger and nearer to the new Westwood View Elementary School.

According to the Institute, it was the attempt to have the issue placed on the ballot that led to the letter.

“It doesn’t matter what side of the debate you’re on, what matters is that you’re able to debate it without being threatened with a lawsuit by the government,” KJI litigation director Sam MacRoberts said.

On Thursday, Dec. 7, the Institute issued a rebuke to make clear that public comments and objections to the sale of the park are protected by the First Amendment.

“The City of Westwood should immediately—and publicly—withdraw its threatening letter and affirm the right of the people to speak freely on matters of public concern,” MacRoberts continued.

KJI noted that the letter is part of its campaign against government interference with the free speech rights of Kansans. In 2019, it successfully sued the state over its prohibition on truthful advertising by raw milk producers.

Meanwhile, the City of Westwood continues to create a steering committee for the new proposal that is set to included 10-12 members. This committee will review a request for qualifications and scope of work for the park, provide input on community engagement, guide park planning work and make a recommendation to the Planning Commission and City Council on the best design and amenities.