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LAWSUIT: Army vet arrested for holding ‘God Bless the Homeless Vets’ sign sues to defend First Amendment
- Police in one Georgia town arrested Jeff Gray, a veteran himself, for ‘panhandling’ for peacefully holding sign to raise awareness of homeless vets
- Police in another town issued criminal citation for not getting a government permit to express his viewpoints on public property
- FIRE: Americans don’t need a government permission slip to speak — the First Amendment is their permission slip
ALPHARETTA & BLACKSHEAR, Ga., Feb. 1, 2023 — Jeff Gray, a U.S. Army veteran and retired truck driver, has been repeatedly stopped, detained, searched, and arrested by the police. His alleged crime? Holding signs — in front of city halls across the United States.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed two lawsuits Tuesday 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.
“I have been harassed, trespassed, handcuffed and arrested countless times for peacefully exercising my First Amendment rights,” said 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.”
Alpharetta police: Holding a sign is illegal ‘panhandling.’
In January 2022, Gray stood on a public sidewalk outside of Alpharetta City Hall holding a sign reading “God Bless the Homeless Vets” to raise awareness of the plight of homeless veterans and, with his own camera rolling, to see how the public and police react. (A compilation of video, audio, and surveillance footage of Gray’s interaction with police is here; a condensed version is here.)
Like they’ve done to many people before, Alpharetta police told Gray he was engaging in illegal “panhandling” and threatened arrest if he didn’t stop. Gray explained that he wasn’t asking others for money and that, regardless, asking others for money is speech protected by the First Amendment.
Then Alpharetta police violated Gray’s First Amendment rights three more times:
- The lieutenant commandeered and turned off Gray’s video camera, violating Gray’s First Amendment right to film police in public places.
- The lieutenant demanded Gray’s identification and searched him to find it, violating Gray’s First Amendment right to speak without being compelled to identify himself.
- The lieutenant banned Gray from the area, violating Gray’s First Amendment right to engage in expression in a public place.
“If this is how Alpharetta police treat a guy with a camera, how do they act the rest of the time?” said FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh. “The First Amendment protects the right to hold up a sign — and it certainly protects the right to film police activity in a public space.”
Blackshear police chief: You need the city council’s permission to speak.
In Blackshear, the city’s police chief approached Gray and told him that a city ordinance requires Gray to have a permit for a “parade, procession, or demonstration” to hold his sign outside city hall. Though Police Chief Chris Wright admitted it was “kind of silly,” he explained that the ordinance — nearly identical to one struck down by the Supreme Court in 1969 — means that Gray would need to send a letter to Blackshear’s mayor and city council explaining the purpose of his demonstration and obtain the council’s approval before proceeding. Gray was issued a criminal citation — which the city later dismissed — and left.
“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.”
Some police honor their oath to the Constitution — but not all.
In 2011, Gray created a YouTube channel to upload recordings of what he calls “civil rights investigations,” as he peacefully asserts his rights in towns across the southeastern U.S. and documents whether government officials understand and respect citizens’ rights. He posts both positive and negative interactions with police to ensure that law enforcement honor their oath to “support and defend” the Constitution.
FIRE’s lawsuit against Alpharetta challenges its police officers’ violations of Gray’s rights to speak, film, and remain anonymous, as well as the City of Alpharetta’s broader practice of banning “panhandling.” In Blackshear, in addition to suing its police chief, FIRE sent a letter to the city’s mayor, explaining that the lawsuit is intended to bring an end to the city’s permission-to-speak ordinance — and put other cities on notice that they can’t leave unconstitutional laws lingering on the books. Sooner or later, a police officer will dust them off and use them, resulting in the violation of rights and liability for the city.
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.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought—the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
Katie Kortepeter, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
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