On August 18, 2021, Jeff Gray stood outside of City Hall in Blackshear, Georgia holding a sign reading “God Bless the Homeless Vets.”
Gray was soon met by Blackshear Chief of Police Chris Wright, who told Gray that a “kind of silly” ordinance required Gray to have a permit to “demonstrate.” Wright explained that Blackshear’s ordinance — nearly identical to an ordinance struck down by the Supreme Court in 1969 — meant that Gray would need to send a letter to the Blackshear City Council explaining the purpose of his demonstration and obtain approval before he could hold a demonstration. Gray declined to leave or end his peaceful advocacy. An officer then issued Gray a citation, which the city later dismissed.
Gray did not need anyone’s permission to hold a sign in front of City Hall. The First Amendment is his permission slip. On January 31, 2023, FIRE and the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law filed a lawsuit on Gray’s behalf against Chief Wright, seeking to have the application of the ordinance declared unconstitutional. FIRE and the First Amendment Clinic also sent a letter to Blackshear’s mayor, explaining that cities can’t leave unconstitutional ordinances lingering on the books, because sooner or later, a police officer will dust them off and use them.
In July 2023, Gray and the City of Blackshear settled the case. In return for Gray dismissing the case, Blackshear rescinded the ordinance used to cite Gray, donated $1,791 — representing the year the First Amendment was ratified — to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, and agreed to train its police officers on free speech.