MOULTRIE, Ga. — Moultrie officials have dropped a disorderly conduct charge against “civil rights auditor” Jeff Gray.
Gray was arrested July 3 after standing outside the Moultrie Municipal Building with a sign that contained an obscene word: “F— City Hall.”
In a letter to Gray dated Thursday, Moultrie Police Chief Sean Ladson said he had conducted a review of the evidence in the case and spoke with several witnesses before deciding to drop the charge and refund a $325 bond Gray had paid to be released from the Colquitt County Jail.
Gray, of St. Augustine, Fla., videoed his encounter with City Manager Pete Dillard and a Moultrie police officer, including his arrest. The video was posted to Gray’s YouTube channel along with other videos that show him and others asserting constitutional rights.
The video shows Dillard asking Gray what issue he has with the city, but Gray says he doesn’t have one. He says he’s just exercising his First Amendment rights.
The officer tells Gray he needs a permit for a public demonstration, but he says he doesn’t want to get one.
The officer consults with her supervisor out of the video’s field of view, and soon she arrests Gray on a charge of disorderly conduct.
The city’s disorderly conduct ordinance contains 29 paragraphs that detail actions that constitute disorderly conduct. The two most relevant to Gray’s case read: “A person commits the crime of disorderly conduct, if, with intent to cause physical inconvenience, annoyance or alarm by or to a member or members of the public, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, such person: …
“(13) Utters or uses in the presence of another any bawdy, lewd, abusive, indecent, vulgar, threatening or obscene language or makes an obscene gesture in or near a public place which has a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by, to, or provokes a violent response by, the person to whom or of whom the remarks are addressed or heard; or …
“(15) Uses ‘fighting words’ or such other words which are likely to provoke a violent response directed towards any person or becomes outraged and thus creates a turmoil; …”
In his letter, Ladson cites two other City of Moultrie ordinances and a state law that he believes Gray also violated, although he was not charged with them: holding a public demonstration without a permit and failure to obey the lawful order of a police officer, as well as the state’s “fighting words” statute.
“Regardless of whether I believe that probable cause existed regarding the statutes and code sections identified above, I do not believe it was your intent to violate those statutes or violate the municipal code section with which you were charged,” Ladson wrote. “I do believe that you intended to create an encounter with law enforcement. I also believe that you intended to provoke Pete Dillard to the point of physical altercation. I further believe that you intended to disrupt the natural flow of citizens in and out of the City Municipal Building. However, it is obvious from your actions before, during and after the incident that your primary purpose behind holding a vulgar sign was to create an encounter with local law enforcement and city officials which would lead to an altercation in which you could claim a violation of your rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
“Because I believe it was not your primary intention to disrupt the public but rather to celebrate your rights under the First Amendment — and despite your choosing to display those rights in a lewd, offensive and disruptive manner — I have exercised my discretion as the Chief of Police and asked the Municipal Court to dismiss the charge filed against you on July 3, 2019.”
Whether Gray’s protest July 3 was disruptive or not, the actions of his colleagues since then certainly have been.
“The PD and city hall received over 200 phone calls, primarily from out of state, for several days,” Dillard told The Observer Friday. “Approximately 1% for reasonable statements of opinion regarding the situation. The other 99% were vulgar, loud, abusive and threatening.
“One email I received was vulgar, perhaps threatening, and referenced my wife by name, which seemed to be a veiled threat,” he said.
Local calls, however, have been completely supportive of the city’s actions, he said.
The deluge of calls made it difficult for people who needed to reach city hall or the police department’s non-emergency number. The Observer was unable to get through on at least three occasions in the days after Gray’s arrest — twice to the Moultrie Police Department and once to city hall.
Meanwhile, the city has discontinued its Facebook page due to an overwhelming number of comments.
“A city cannot remove negative comments from its social media platforms,” Dillard said. “We have not. A city can abide by its posting requirements, which state that no obscenity will be allowed. A city can always take neutral action which affects positive and negative comments equally. Such an action can include suspending or discontinuing a FB page. We have discontinued that FB page.”
The city’s Facebook page was a major way the city’s marketing department shared news with residents, including updates during last year’s hurricane, missing person announcements from the police department, changes to garbage pickups due to holidays, and more.