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Army veteran arrested for holding sign to raise awareness of homeless vets — First Amendment News 366

“I have been harassed, trespassed, handcuffed and arrested countless times for peacefully exercising my First Amendment rights,” said Jeffrey Gray. “My intention is to ensure that all Americans from the wealthiest millionaire to the poorest homeless person can exercise these rights without fear of consequence from our government.”
Jeff Gray featured image

Lacy Jessica Photography

FIRE plaintiff Jeff Gray holds a sign that reads, “God Bless the Homeless Vets”

To borrow from Bob Dylan, it might be that “the ladder of the law has no top and no bottom.” Of course, the reality of the situation is rarely that egalitarian even when free speech rights are at stake. For ragtag types with cardboard signs, time, place, and manner rules can pose a clear and present danger to their First Amendment rights. Case in point

Army veteran Jeffrey Gray stood on the sidewalk in front of Alpharetta City Hall with a cardboard sign reading “God Bless the Homeless Vets” and saying the same aloud to passersby. For this, Alpharetta police lieutenant Arick Furr detained and arrested Gray for “panhandling.” [see disturbing video here] [I]n accordance with Alpharetta’s anti-panhandling policy, practice, or custom, [the officer] searched Gray to obtain his identification and turned off Gray’s camera to prevent him from filming the officer’s misconduct.

After giving the matter some thought, the police thought it best to release Mr. Gray but with a warning that he could not panhandle and that he had to leave the public premise and take his “God Bless the Homeless Vets” sign with him. When he dared to return to the scene of “the crime,” a police lieutenant “banned Gray indefinitely from the area, prohibiting him from continuing to engage in expressive activity.” Worse still, the Chief of Police maintains that Mr. Gray must secure a permission slip from the Blackshear City Council in order to peacefully hold his “God Bless” sign.

In response to this inhumane bullying, FIRE filed two lawsuits on Gray’s behalf to protect the First Amendment right to speak outside government buildings: one against the City of Alpharetta, Georgia. and two of its police officers; the second against the police chief of the City of Blackshear, Georgia.

Andrew Fleischman is serving as local counsel in the Alpharetta case. The First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law is serving as local counsel in the Blackshear case.

“Jeff Gray doesn’t need a government-issued permission slip to speak — the First Amendment is his permission slip,” said FIRE attorney Harrison Rosenthal. “Speaking out in public areas is a core First Amendment right, whether government officials recognize it or not. If our cities won’t teach officers to do their job properly, FIRE will.”

Relief Sought

In a recent letter to the Mayor of the City of Blackshear, Adam Steinbaugh and Clare Norins wrote:

Clare Norins
Clare Norins

To prevent the full litigation of this case, Mr. Gray is willing to resolve this lawsuit if Blackshear will agree to correct its past errors and avoid future ones by:

  1. Agreeing that Blackshear officials will no longer enforce the ordinance;
  2. Agreeing that Blackshear’s mayor will seek, and the City Council will consider, the repeal of the ordinance no later than June 1, 2023;
  3. Donating $1,779 (reflecting the year that the First Amendment was ratified) to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans; and
  4. Committing to providing regular training to Blackshear’s police on the First Amendment conducted by a reputable organization with relevant expertise.

This offer will remain open until the close of business on April 3, 2023, and may be accepted only by receipt of a written agreement to these terms.

Sampling of relevant case law

 Scholarly commentaries


First Amendment Salon: Free expression and aiding and abetting laws in post-Dobbs times

‘So to Speak’ podcast: Artificial intelligence — Is it protected by the First Amendment?

What does the rise of artificial intelligence mean for the future of free speech and the First Amendment? Who is liable for what AI produces? Can you own a copyright for works produced by AI? Does AI itself violate intellectual property rights when it uses others' information to generate content? What about that Morgan Freeman “deep fake”? And is ChatGPT going to make all of our jobs irrelevant?

  • Eugene Volokh, professor at UCLA School of Law
  • David Greene, senior staff attorney and civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Alison Schary, partner at Davis Wright Tremaine

Listen to the most recent episode of FIRE"s "So to Speak" podcast.


Man arrested for critical comments of council members acquitted

A Newton resident arrested after upsetting city officials with critical comments at City Council meetings has the First Amendment right to criticize city employees, a judge has ruled.

Gina Messamer
Gina Messamer

Noah Petersen, 22, was arrested repeatedly [video link here] at Newton City Council meetings in October 2022 and charged with disorderly conduct after harshly criticizing city police officials. Ruling Wednesday in the first of those cases to go to trial, Judge Peter Lahn issued a written decision finding Petersen not guilty.

“The court finds the defendant's statements and actions did not exceed any authority he may lawfully claim under the free speech provision of the United States Constitution,” Lahn wrote.

[ . . . ]

Petersen's attorney, Gina Messamer . . . said: “We will be moving forward with a civil rights lawsuit soon.”

Forthcoming book: Heinze on ‘Why free speech is everything’

  • Eric Heinze, “The Most Human Right: Why Free Speech Is Everything” (The MIT Press, Sept. 2023)

A bold, groundbreaking argument by a world-renowned expert that unless we treat free speech as the fundamental human right, there can be no others.

Book cover to Eric Heinze "The Most Human Right - Why Free Speech Is Everything"

What are human rights? Are they laid out definitively in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the US Bill of Rights? Are they items on a checklist—dignity, justice, progress, standard of living, health care, housing? In The Most Human Right, Eric Heinze explains why global human rights systems have failed. International organizations constantly report on how governments manage human goods, such as fair trials, humane conditions of detention, healthcare, or housing. But to appease autocratic regimes, experts have ignored the primacy of free speech.

Heinze argues that goods become rights only when citizens can claim them publicly and fearlessly: free speech is the fundamental right, without which the very concept of a “right” makes no sense. Heinze argues that throughout history countless systems of justice have promised human goods. What, then, makes human rights different? What must human rights have that other systems have lacked?

Heinze revisits the origins of the concept, exploring what it means for a nation to protect human rights, and what a citizen needs in order to pursue them. He explains how free speech distinguishes human rights from other ideas about justice, past and present.

Eric Heinze is a Professor of Law and Humanities in the University of London and an internationally recognized authority on free speech and human rights. He is the author of Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship, The Concept of Injustice,and other books. He is a frequent guest speaker on radio, on television, and online, and his opinion pieces have appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, and many other publications.

Forthcoming book on campaign money and judicial elections

Book cover to Michael Kang and Joanna Shepherd "Free to Judge: The Power of Campaign Money in Judicial Elections"

The idea that wealthy people use their money to influence things, including politics, law, and media will surprise very few people. However, as Michael S. Kang and Joanna Shepherd argue in this readable and rich study of the state judiciary, the effect of money on judicial outcomes should disturb and anger everyone. In the current system that elects state judges, the rich and powerful can spend money to elect and re-elect judges who decide cases the way they want. Free to Judge is about how and why money increasingly affects the dispensation of justice in our legal system, and what can be done to stop it.

One of the barriers to action in the past has been an inability to prove that campaign donations influence state judicial decision-making. In this book, Kang and Shepherd answer that challenge for the first time, with a rigorous empirical study of campaign finance and judicial decision-making data. Pairing this with interviews of past and present judges, they create a compelling and persuasive account of people like Marsha Ternus, the first Iowa state supreme court justice to be voted out of office after an intense her and her decision in a same-sex marriage case. The threat of such an outcome, and the desire to win reelection, results in judges demonstrably leaning towards the interests and preferences of their campaign donors across all cases. 

Free to Judge is thus able to identify the pieces of our current system that invite bias, such as judicial reelection, and what reforms should focus on. This thoughtful and compellingly written book will be required reading for anybody who cares about creating a more just legal system.

Forthcoming book: Kernes on porn and the war on sex

Book cover to Mark Kernes "Preachers Vs. Porn: Exposing Christianity’s War on Sexxx"

Preachers vs. Porn is a book about war-specifically the war between Christian religious philosophy and its adherents and the adult entertainment industry that has been targeted by Christian religious leaders and their supportive politicians. In these pages, author Mark Kemes reports the findings of his investigations into how Christianity has evolved into a political force that supports conservative politics that specifically targets sex and sexual depictions to advance its political aims.

Adult readers who are interested in learning about the effect of Christianity on the sexual aspect of life and humanity will find Kemes’ research and firsthand experience as a former court reporter and legal editor informative and enlightening. Sociologists; atheists/agnostics; First Amendment attorneys; adult industry members, including performers, owners of adult production companies, and owners of strip clubs; and psychologists in particular will find this material, culled from the millions of words Kernes has written, to be insightful into how conservative Christianity has impacted sexuality in our society.

Two forthcoming books on censorship

Recent scholarly article

Since January 2021, forty-two states have introduced “anti–critical race theory” (anti-CRT) bills that restrict discussions of racism and sexism in public schools. As teachers, administrators, and civil rights organizations scramble to interpret these bills, many wonder: How can this be constitutional? At the heart of this broader question is a legal problem that remains unaddressed by both scholars and the Supreme Court: Is K-12 teacher speech, particularly instructional speech, protected under the First Amendment? This Note seeks to fill this gap in legal scholarship and jurisprudence, using anti-CRT laws as a lens through which to evaluate the constitutional protections afforded to K-12 teacher speech.

Part I of this Note provides a qualitative survey of anti-CRT laws, unpacking the speech and activity that the laws restrict. Part II reviews the major doctrinal approaches available to courts for analyzing K-12 teacher speech. Part III analyzes how those existing doctrinal approaches apply to anti-CRT laws, concluding that existing doctrine is inadequate for the task. Education law and policy operate under the implicit assumption that the government may regulate the “what” of teaching by setting curriculum, but the “how” of teaching is largely left up to teachers as certified professionals. Anti-CRT laws, however, represent a sharp departure from that approach. In making that departure, they impermissibly infringe on K-12 teachers’ First Amendment rights. This Note argues that courts can remedy this problem by making the implicit doctrinal distinction between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of teaching explicit and striking down anti-CRT laws as unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment.

Interview with FIRE’s Nico Perrino in SPIN magazine

Freedom of speech is always the tool for the powerless. If you don’t have power, all you have is your voice. So, if you are pushing for censorship, you are tacitly acknowledging that you have power. Or you’re just pursuing a tactic that’s gonna be used against you once that power is given to authority.

[ . . . ]

Freedom of speech is in a weird place. We had that marriage of convenience with conservatives in recent years, but conservatives now have power in institutions that they didn’t before. And now they see D.E.I. [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion], and woke, and C.R.T. [Critical Race Theory] issues as being a bigger threat than the censorship of conservatives in higher education, for example. And now they’re using those same tools that they once opposed to advance their interests. 

[ . . . ]

Censoring ideas allows conspiracy theories to enter. Do we want the government deciding what is true, what is false? Yeah. Uh, they can certainly make the case for it, but under penalty of prison or deplatforming or collaborating with private actors to censor is very, very dangerous. I’m sympathetic to concerns about the existence of falsity in our society, but I’m more concerned about some of the tools that are used to combat it.

More in the news

2022-2023 SCOTUS term: Free expression and related cases

Review granted 

Pending petitions

State action

Qualified immunity

Immunity under Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act 

Liability Anti-Terrorism Act

Section 230 immunity

Review denied

Previous FAN

FAN 365: “Special issue: Public libraries becoming First Amendment battlefield

This article is part of First Amendment News, an editorially independent publication edited by professor Ronald K. L. Collins and hosted by FIRE as part of our mission to educate the public about First Amendment issues. The opinions expressed are those of the article's author(s) and may not reflect the opinions of FIRE or of professor Collins.  



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