- Police in Blackshear, Georgia, issued Jeff Gray a citation for not getting a government permit to hold ‘God Bless the Homeless Vets’ sign on public property
- After lawsuit from FIRE and UGA’s First Amendment Clinic, Blackshear rescinded the unconstitutional ordinance, donated money to homeless veterans charity, and will train officers on the First Amendment
BLACKSHEAR, Ga., July 6, 2023 — A Georgia city has eliminated an unconstitutional law that required citizens to get approval from the mayor and city council before they could exercise their right to protest.
Following a First Amendment lawsuit from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the City of Blackshear, Georgia, revoked an unconstitutional ordinance police cited in stopping veteran Jeff Gray from holding a “God Bless the Homeless Vets” sign outside of city hall. The city also paid the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans $1,791 — symbolizing the year the First Amendment was ratified — and will train its police officers on citizens’ First Amendment rights.
“We held the town of Blackshear, Georgia, accountable for violating my civil liberties, and we did so in a classy, meaningful and effective manner,” said Gray, who regularly gauges whether government officials know and respect citizens’ First Amendment rights.
On Jan. 31, FIRE filed two lawsuits on Gray’s behalf to protect Americans’ right to speak outside government buildings: the first against the City of Alpharetta, Georgia, and two of its police officers, and the second against Blackshear’s police chief. FIRE brought the Blackshear lawsuit in collaboration with the University of Georgia Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, which provides law students with real-world practice experience directly representing clients on First Amendment claims and serves as an educational resource on issues of free expression and press rights.
In Blackshear, Police Chief Chris Wright approached Gray and informed him of a city ordinance requiring citizens to obtain a government permit for a “parade, procession, or demonstration” if they wanted to hold a sign outside city hall. Although Wright said it was “kind of silly,” he explained that the ordinance — nearly identical to one struck down by the Supreme Court in 1969 — meant that Gray would need to send a letter to Blackshear’s mayor and city council explaining the purpose of his one-person demonstration and obtain the council’s approval. Gray was issued a criminal citation, which was later dismissed.
“It’s a new dawn in Blackshear,” said FIRE attorney Harrison Rosenthal. “Americans don’t need a permission slip to speak in front of city hall. The First Amendment is their permission slip.”
Along with the lawsuit, FIRE and UGA’s First Amendment Clinic sent a letter to Blackshear’s mayor, explaining that the lawsuit aimed to end the city’s unconstitutional permission-to-speak ordinance.
“Blackshear’s response here should serve as a model and a warning for other cities,” said FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh. “Cities must reform or rescind unconstitutional laws before they land in hot water.”
In 2011, Gray launched a YouTube channel to share videos of what he calls “civil rights investigations.” He peacefully asserts his rights in towns across the southeastern U.S. and records whether government officials understand and respect citizens’ rights. He posts both positive and negative interactions with police to ensure that law enforcement honor their oaths to “support and defend” the Constitution.
Gray’s lawsuit against Alpharetta remains pending.
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