- After a lawsuit from FIRE and UGA’s First Amendment Clinic, Port Wentworth issued a formal apology to Gray and will donate to charity, train officers on the First Amendment, and announce that space outside city hall is open for expressive activity.
A Georgia city apologized and paid up to settle a lawsuit about its officer’s arrest of a veteran for holding a sign that said “God Bless the Homeless Vets” outside of its city hall.
Following a First Amendment lawsuit from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the University of Georgia Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, the City of Port Wentworth, Georgia, agreed to a settlement with Jeff Gray. As part of the settlement, the city agreed to donate a symbolic $1,791 to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans — a nod to the First Amendment’s ratification in 1791 — and will give $1,791 each to Gray and FIRE. Port Wentworth will also maintain the public space in front of city hall as an open public forum and train its officers on citizens’ First Amendment rights.
“Port Wentworth found out the hard way that it can’t try to bulldoze my rights and get away with it,” said Gray, who regularly examines whether government officials know and respect citizens’ First Amendment rights. “I’m thankful for the outcome here, but I won’t stop speaking out on behalf of myself and my fellow citizens.
On Jan. 31, FIRE filed two lawsuits on Gray’s behalf to, what they say will, “protect Americans’ right to speak outside government buildings:’ the first, against Alpharetta, Georgia, and two of its police officers; and the second, against the police chief of Blackshear, Georgia. On July 17, FIRE filed a third lawsuit against Port Wentworth.
On July 19, 2021, Gray was arrested in Port Wentworth by then-Sergeant Robert Hemminger. In conversations caught on the officer’s body camera, 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, he was arrested. Hemminger claimed that city hall’s sidewalks were private property, charged Gray with a misdemeanor, and banned him from visiting city hall again. Hemminger’s body camera then captured the sergeant explaining that he had arrested Gray because Gray was playing a “game” by standing up for his rights.
“If police departments do not create a culture of respect for constitutional rights, their officers will view them as a game,” said FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh. “When police officers treat the Constitution as a game, we all lose.”
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.
FIRE brought the Port Wentworth and Blackshear lawsuits in collaboration with UGA’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. On July 6, 2023, Blackshear agreed to eliminate an unconstitutional ordinance that required the mayor’s permission to hold a demonstration. Gray’s lawsuit against Alpharetta — where police told Gray that “controversy” was “disorderly conduct” and stopped him from filming them — 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.