Man arrested for holding sign at city hall settles lawsuit

| Screengrab: YouTube/Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

A Georgia city has apologized for arresting a man who was advocating on behalf of homeless veterans in front of city hall. 

In a statement released Tuesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression announced that the city of Port Wentworth, Georgia, had reached a settlement with Jeff Gray two years after arresting him for holding a sign that read “God Bless the Homeless Vets” in front of the city hall. As part of the agreement, finalized Monday, Port Wentworth will donate three checks totaling $1,791 each to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Gray and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. 

Additionally, the city issued an apology to Gray and agreed to submit a notice to the public, Port Wentworth law enforcement officers and city hall employees explaining that “the area in front of Port Wentworth City Hall is a traditional public forum that may be used by members of the public for expressive activity, including demonstrations, protests, petitioning, and holding signs.”

“Port Wentworth found out the hard way that it can’t try to bulldoze my rights and get away with it,” Gray said in response to the settlement. “I’m thankful for the outcome here, but I won’t stop speaking out on behalf of myself and my fellow citizens.”

Video footage of the arrest on July 19, 2021, shows Port Wentworth Police Sgt. Robert Hemminger informing Gray that city hall employees had asked him to “find another location” to hold his “God Bless the Homeless Vets” sign that was not directly in front of the government building. Gray responded by declaring, “I’d rather not.” 

The video footage shows Hemminger going back inside city hall after speaking with Gray and explaining to the city hall employees that “technically, he’s not breaking laws” as he reported back on the conversation the two men had and Gray declining to relocate. Clarifying that Gray was “polite,” Hemminger informed the city hall employees that he would ask Gray to leave again and charge him with trespassing if he refused to vacate the premises a second time. 

Hemminger went back outside and asked Gray why he wanted to stand in that particular location. He replied, “God put it in my heart to stand right here and spread the message ‘God bless the homeless veterans.’” 

Hemminger reiterated what he told Gray before, that he could stand with the sign at a variety of alternative locations in the vicinity that were not city property. He said that if he didn’t do so, he would be charged with trespassing. When asked if he was “being trespassed,” Hemminger answered in the affirmative: “As of now, you are.”

When Hemminger asked Gray to give him his identification, Gray agreed to leave, but the law enforcement official told him, “You’re not free to go now” and suggested that he was playing a “game.” Gray was placed under arrest for obstruction because he did not give Hemminger his identification. He was released later that day without actually going to jail and was ordered to remain off city property. 

Nearly two years after his arrest, Gray filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia Savannah Division alleging that Hemminger’s actions violated his First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. 

Port Wentworth is not the only city in Georgia to arrest Gray for holding a “God Bless the Homeless Vets” sign. The city of Alpharetta and Blackshear Police Chief Chris Wright also found themselves subject to lawsuits for doing so. The Blackshear City Council amended the city ordinance used to arrest Gray, which required individuals to receive advanced approval from the mayor or city council to demonstrate on public streets or sidewalks, earlier this year. 

The arrest of Gray is not the first time Port Wentworth has received national attention. In February, former Port Wentworth Police Officer Jacob Kersey filed a lawsuit against the police department, alleging that it engaged in religious discrimination against him by placing him on administrative leave for refusing to take down a Facebook post expressing support for the biblical definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. 

Kersey resigned from the force after concluding that continuing to serve in his position would require him to compromise his deeply held religious beliefs.

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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