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Gray v. Lt. Hemminger: The First Amendment Is Not ‘A Game’ –– Not Even In Port Wentworth, GA


Case Overview



Holding a sign is not a crime. The First Amendment guarantees the right to speak on public property outside City Hall: in Alpharetta, in Blackshear, across the United States, and now in Port Wentworth, Georgia too. 

On July 19, 2021, Jeff Gray stood on the sidewalk outside Port Wentworth City Hall holding a large sign reading “God Bless the Homeless Vets.” In a conversation caught on an officer’s body camera, city employees — informed by the officer that Gray was doing nothing unlawful — wanted him removed anyway, complaining: “He can’t stand in front of our City Hall talking about ‘support the homeless vets.’ We can’t have that.” So then-Sergeant Robert Hemminger (since promoted to Lieutenant Hemminger) told Gray that while he wasn’t doing anything unlawful, he was being asked to leave the property. 

Hemminger argued that because the sidewalk is “city property,” city employees “have the right to ask you to leave.” When Gray began filming Hemminger and asked whether he was being banned from the property, Hemminger bellowed: “As of now you are!” Hemminger demanded Gray’s identification, announcing that it was now “an investigation.” Hemminger proceeded to handcuff, arrest, and cart Gray off to jail. In a second conversation caught on his body camera, Hemminger explained that he arrested Gray because Gray “wanted to play the game” by questioning Hemminger’s authority and filming him. 

Hemminger’s actions were unconstitutional. Police cannot expel a speaker from open public areas just because city officials do not like his message. On July 17, 2023, FIRE filed a lawsuit on Jeff Gray’s behalf — and to defend the First Amendment for all. Hemminger said Gray was “playing the game” by standing up for his rights. The Constitution is not a game. It’s a rulebook. 

In November 2023, Port Wentworth agreed to rescind Gray’s banishment, committed to training its officers on First Amendment rights, issued a formal apology to Gray, and paid $1,791 — representing the year the First Amendment was ratified — each to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, FIRE, and Gray. Port Wentworth also issued a written acknowledgment that the outdoor space around City Hall is a public forum, helping to ensure that nobody will be banned from that space for protected speech in the future.