Police Harassed a Man Holding a ‘God Bless the Homeless Vets’ Sign. He’s Suing.
February 2, 2023 | Tags: Civil Liberties, First Amendment, free speech, REASON
Police in two Georgia towns—Alpharetta and Blackshear—arrested, searched, and even issued criminal citations against a man for holding a sign intended to raise awareness for homeless veterans. Jeff Gray, a U.S. Army veteran himself, says the police tried to stop him from exercising his First Amendment rights. Now, officials in both cities are facing a federal lawsuit.
"Jeff Gray doesn't need a government-issued permission slip to speak — the First Amendment is his permission slip," said Harrison Rosenthal, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a First Amendment nonprofit that filed the lawsuits on Gray's behalf. "Speaking out in public areas is a core First Amendment right, whether government officials recognize it or not."
Since 2011, Jeff Gray has uploaded videos of himself engaging in what he calls "civil rights investigations" in cities across the southeastern United States. In these videos, Gray peacefully tests whether local law enforcement will respect his constitutional rights—often by holding a cardboard sign with a message about homeless veterans or recording police during routine traffic stops. Frequently, his efforts result in arrests, "I've been arrested at least eight or nine times," Gray tells Reason. "What I've learned from these investigations is that if they think that you're a homeless person, they don't treat you as an equal human. They treat you as less than human."
In January 2022, Gray was harassed by Alpharetta police as he stood outside city hall holding a sign that read "God Bless Homeless Vets." Video footage released by FIRE shows Gray peacefully standing with the sign, occasionally saying "God bless the homeless veterans" to passersby. But Gray was soon interrupted. According to the lawsuit, a city councilman told Gray there was "no panhandling here" and directed a nearby police officer, Arick Furr, to order Gray to leave the area.
When Gray refused to leave, Furr demanded Gray's identification. According to the lawsuit, "Gray declined and asked Lt. Furr to describe the 'reasonable, articulable suspicion that crime is afoot,' to justify his demand that Gray show him an identification card." Furr responded by again telling Gray that "panhandling" is illegal in the city, adding "I'm not going to deal with you," before handcuffing Gray. Making matters worse, Furr turned off Gray's camera despite his objections. According to the lawsuit, in a later disciplinary report, Furr conceded that he "knew that he should not have manipulated the camera and should have allowed the camera to continue to record."
Another officer, Harold Shoffeitt, soon joined Furr. The pair, after attempting to interrogate Gray, eventually released him. However, Furr created a "CRIMINAL TRESPASS WARNING" against Gray ordering him not to return to the area for one year.
Gray also faced police harassment in the small town of Blackshear. According to that lawsuit, Gray was engaged in a similar demonstration in August 2021 when he was stopped by the local police chief, who told Gray that he could protest only if he first obtained a permit, adding that the law was "kind of silly, but that's what the rules are." Gray refused to leave and was issued a criminal citation for violating the local ordinance, though the citation was later dropped.
In the lawsuits against both cities, FIRE challenges a local law. In the case of Alpharetta, the suit claims that the city's anti-panhandling law is overly broad and a content-based restriction on speech, arguing that simply asking others for money in a public space is clearly protected by the First Amendment. And even if the law were constitutional, the law would not apply to Gray, because he was not panhandling.
In the suit against Blackshear, FIRE argues that the city's law requiring formal permission to protest is also clearly unconstitutional, writing that "the public parks, streets, and sidewalks of the City of Blackshear, including the sidewalks in front of Blackshear City Hall, are traditional public fora, immemorially held in trust for the use of the public to communicate thoughts or discuss public questions."
In addition to other claims, the lawsuit against Alpharetta also singles out Furr and Shoffeitt for retaliating against Gray for engaging in First Amendment–protected speech, illegally compelling him to identify himself, and interfering with this right to film police activity.
"I have been harassed, trespassed, handcuffed and arrested countless times for peacefully exercising my First Amendment rights," Gray said in a Monday press release. "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."
With these lawsuits, FIRE hopes "that cities will take a look at their ordinances and their statutes and their regulations and dust off old dusty law books and make sure there's nothing unconstitutional lingering in there," FIRE Attorney Adam Steinbaugh tells Reason. "If you have an old law that's just sitting around and it's unconstitutional, sooner or later, a police officer's going to pick up that book and throw it at somebody."
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