PORT WENTWORTH, Ga., July 17, 2023 — Police in Georgia keep failing an easy test: Does the First Amendment protect the right to hold a sign reading “God Bless the Homeless Vets” in front of City Hall and the right to film police officers in public? Spoiler alert: It sure does.
Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a lawsuit on behalf of Jeff Gray, challenging his arrest by a Port Wentworth police officer. Following lawsuits on behalf of Gray in Alpharetta, Georgia, and Blackshear, Georgia, this is FIRE’s third case related to Peach State police officers’ constitutional illiteracy, and it’s the second brought with the help of the University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic.
“In Port Wentworth, Georgia, my rights were violated upon the whim of government employees,” said Gray. “Now I am honored to be working with FIRE to ensure that never happens again.”
In 2011, Gray, a veteran and retired truck driver, created a YouTube channel to upload recordings of what he calls “civil rights investigations.” The videos show Gray peacefully asserting his rights in towns across the southeastern U.S. and documenting whether government officials understand and respect civil liberties. He posts both positive and negative interactions with police, hoping to ensure that law enforcement officers everywhere will honor their oath to “support and defend” the Constitution.
On July 19, 2021, Gray stood on the sidewalk outside of Port Wentworth’s City Hall. He held a cardboard sign reading “God Bless the Homeless Vets.” In conversations caught on the officer’s body camera, then-Sergeant Robert Hemminger acknowledged to city employees — and Gray, repeatedly — that Gray wasn’t doing anything unlawful. But the employees adamantly insisted they didn’t want Gray there, saying, “He can’t stand in front of our City Hall talking about ‘support the homeless vets.’ We can’t have that!”
When Gray chose to remain, Hemminger told him that the sidewalks were private property and asked him to leave. When Gray started filming the interaction and asked if he was trespassing, Hemminger detained him in retaliation.
Hemminger then demanded Gray’s identification, telling Gray, “You want to play the game.” What “game” did Hemminger believe Gray was playing? With his body camera still running, Hemminger explained, apparently to a colleague, that “the game” was filming him and questioning his authority — both of which are protected by the First Amendment.
When Gray said he would rather leave as requested, Hemminger arrested him for refusing to provide identification. Gray was charged with “obstruction,” a misdemeanor, and issued a “basically permanent” ban from the public sidewalk in front of Port Wentworth City Hall.
“Public sidewalks are not private property, as the name suggests,” said FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh. “Jeff had every right to share his message that day, whether Port Wentworth’s City Hall liked it or not.”
FIRE helped secure a pro bono criminal defense lawyer for Gray and the charge was ultimately dropped — but only after nearly two years.
“No matter how many lawsuits it takes, FIRE will zealously defend what should be an unambiguous right — to peaceably hold a sign in front of city hall,” said FIRE attorney Harrison Rosenthal. “We’re not just defending Gray’s First Amendment rights; we’re safeguarding the Constitution — a document that U.S. Army veterans, including Gray, bravely served to protect.”
FIRE’s lawsuit asks for a declaration that Hemminger violated Gray’s rights and an award of punitive damages.
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.
The First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law defends and advances freedoms of speech, press, assembly and petition through direct client representation, providing law students with the opportunity to learn substantive areas of First Amendment law while developing concrete lawyering skills in the context of Constitutional litigation.
Katie Kortepeter, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org