Editor’s note: Since this article first ran, 14th Judicial Circuit Judge Carmen T. Mullen granted a partial summary judgment on Nov. 13, 2018, in favor of First Team Hyundai LLC, ruling Greg Hackney’s protest was defamatory and ordering a stop to his actions.
You’re pushing 60 mph, maybe 70, on the highway, shooting out of the curve near the car dealerships and that big American flag, and you flash by him — the man off to your right wearing golf spikes, holding the sign — and you have no idea you’ve just blown past a battlefield.
A war is being fought here, on a debris-strewn shoulder off U.S. 278. It’s a war of attrition that pits the First Amendment against business interests, one waged between a company that says it’s being slandered and a self-proclaimed patriot with a sales background — the man on the side of the road.
He holds the sign, and the sign holds the clues.
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If you’re a tourist traveling home, heading for I-95 after a week on the island, you might wonder, Good grief! What’s he still doing out here with that sign?
If you’re a commuter bound for Hardeeville, you’ve seen him before, know he’s been out here for weeks — months! An odd fixture of the landscape, foreign and familiar.
Maybe you honk. A lot of people do. Wave, too.
Sometimes he waves back, his hand wrapped in a neon green glove. He wears a visor. Sunglasses. He has a neatly trimmed beard. Freckled skin.
Maybe you slow down, pull off the road and park on the sloping shoulder behind his Hyundai Sonata, the vehicle that, arguably, was the genesis of all this: the protest, his mission. God put him out here, he’ll say. He’s not doing this for money, he’ll add; if he wins any, he’ll give it to Houston-based televangelist Joel Osteen’s church.
He — Greg Hackney, who might otherwise be home in Atlanta were it not for a Hilton Head Island ditch — will tell you why he’s here, holding a sign, one that might read:
H. HEAD HYUNDAI
He’ll tell you he’s being sued by the dealership looming behind him.
He’ll tell you he’s in a moment of “transition.”
It’s a wild tale, one he’ll fire at you in rapid bursts as if shot from a belt-fed machine gun with endless ammo and a barrel that won’t quit, its rounds hitting all over the place before finding their mark.
And when he gets on target, he tells you all of this is happening because Hilton Head Hyundai judged a book — him — by its cover, and that this mess could’ve been prevented if he’d just received an apology.
“But they told me to go pound sand,” he’ll say.
Instead, Greg Hackney goes to Dollar Tree.
$15 a day
Dollar Tree: That’s where he buys the signs’ letters — red and blue, ALL CAPS with rounded edges, the kind that might decorate a middle school bulletin board — to spell out the accusations that prompted the lawsuit.
First Team Hyundai LLC — aka Hilton Head Hyundai (and now, after an August re-branding, Peacock Hyundai Hilton Head) — sued Hackney in September, a little less than a month after his protest began, according to Jasper County court documents. The Peacock Auto Mall dealership alleges defamation, libel and slander, and that Hackney’s actions are costing it business.
Twice the dealership asked 14th Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen, whose office declined to comment on the case, to issue an injunction preventing Hackney’s protest while both parties await trial. Twice that request was denied. So the dealership asked the S.C. Court of Appeals to consider the matter, which it is currently doing. Hackney’s response to the appeal is due May 18, according to the court.
“I think the trial court probably refused to grant (an injunction) seeing as it would be a prior restraint on (freedom of) speech,” said University of South Carolina law professor Lisa Eichhorn, who has read the appeal. “Courts have fairly broad discretion in deciding whether to grant or deny preliminary injunctions, and so it’s hard to get a (trial) court’s decision about a preliminary injunction overturned on appeal.”
No trial date has been set. Hackney’s protest continues. With few exceptions — a few days here and there, a trip home during the holiday season, a three-week hiatus that included a Houston-based missionary conference, some days off during Tropical Storm Irma — he’s maintained his effort from roughly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, over the past eight months.
There’s a solemn quality to his “activity,” as he calls his protest. He holds his sign and slowly paces; he’s close to the highway but doesn’t flag down drivers. He’s friendly when people stop to chat. He doesn’t want to hurt the dealership, he says — he wants it to sell cars.
Hilton Head Hyundai may be the most visible sales center from U.S. 278. It’s not hidden deep in the mall like the Volkswagen operation, for example — you can’t miss it.
And you can’t miss him.
“The dealership has seen a dip in sales and ... profits,” said Brad Martin, a Greenville-based attorney representing Hilton Head Hyundai. In early April, Martin said he couldn’t offer specific figures ahead of trial but said the dealership was “keeping track of it.” People, leery of doing business, have called the company on account of Hackney, the attorney said.
“I’ve practiced law for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Martin said. “Who has the time to do this, for heaven’s sake?”
Hackney does, and he says he’ll keep doing it until he’s ordered not to.
He can’t get over the slight he says he suffered: The dealership’s service department didn’t make the proper, insurance-covered repairs, he says, after he drove the Sonata through a ditch he couldn’t see on the night of May 23, 2017, on Hilton Head. More troubling, he says, is that he was “treated like a bum” for wearing golf spikes and athletic shorts, and for driving a beat-up car. Dealership staffers didn’t know they were jerking around a former vice president from corporate America, he says.
Most concerning, though, in Hackney’s opinion, is what he sees as Hilton Head Hyundai’s efforts to stifle his First Amendment rights.
He’s done with the corporate world, thankful his current gig allows him to devote almost a year of his life to this cause. This challenge is preparing him for his next journey, he says, a spiritual quest he’s planning.
“I want to be judged by a jury of my peers,” Hackney, who’s representing himself, recently said. “I’m ready to go to court.”
For now, though, the man who used to dine on a company American Express card says he can survive on $15 a day.
‘He likes chicken wings’
“Look, I don’t spend a whole lot of money,” says Hackney, 53, hollering over the roar of traffic on a warm February day.
A logging truck blows by and bits of bark dance toward the shoulder where he’s standing. It’s not uncommon to see a plastic flower pot fall off a pickup and roll into the grass nearby.
“I’m out here, and this is not a vacation,” he continues. “This is not a vacation. I have a budget! I stick to it. I don’t spend a lot of money. I don’t eat out. I get two beers down here.”
He points west, toward the interstate and the clusters of gas stations at Exit 8, where he’s friendly with the clerks — some call him “Mr. Hyundai” — working the registers. He might stop there at the end of the day for a couple of Miller Lites and some ice on his way out of Jasper County. He doesn’t stay here, doesn’t feel safe here.
“I buy groceries, my signs. “ He gestures in the opposite direction, toward Dollar Tree and the Walmart shopping plaza. “I, probably, I’ve spent $8,000 to $10,000,” he says. “I’m not staying in nice hotels. Sometimes I sleep in my car.”
The Sonata is parked on the shoulder near the treeline. There’s a Bible inside, and a CD containing a lecture about early Christianity — “The Holy Land Revealed.” Hackney sometimes listens to the disc through headphones as he paces the roadside. Other times, Osteen’s voice pipes through the tiny speakers; Hackney lists the man’s sermons on the back of his signs to avoid hearing them twice.
He makes new signs every couple of weeks or so, after the elements have taken their toll. He uses a ruler to ensure they’re neat. He reinforces them with extra backing. In his October 2017, 125-page response to Hilton Head Hyundai’s complaint, Hackney claims that some of his signs have been stolen, and that dealership employees have harassed, intimidated and otherwise treated him unprofessionally.
“This is a serious business,” Hackney says. “This is not fun. I’m not playing golf on the weekends. I’m not going to dinner with my buddies.” A car honks at him as it flashes past.
Hackney might grab an energy drink and a biscuit at a gas station. He’s eaten a couple of times in the cafe across the road inside O.C. Welch Ford Lincoln, that dealership’s owner says.
“He likes chicken wings,” Welch said in late March. “That’s about all I know about him. We take him chicken wings over there sometimes.” Welch, who’s sold cars for more than four decades, said Hackney’s protest is unprecedented. The man came to a fall 2017 sales meeting, Welch said, and nobody recognized him because he was in a suit.
“He ain’t crazy — he might be crazy for doing that,” Welch said, glancing through his office window toward the rival dealership across the highway. “But he ain’t crazy.”
Back on the roadside, Hackney says, “I’m not going out to dinner tonight and watching football, you know? And on Sundays, I work at the Salvation Army.” (The Savannah-based organization confirmed his claim.)
This is Hackney’s life at the moment: wake up before sunup, read the Bible, grab breakfast, maybe make a new sign, picket along the road, break for lunch, protest till sundown.
Some volunteer work.
He says it’s been a long time since he’s been this happy.
‘You move 13 times ... ‘
He wasn’t as happy years ago, even if he was successful.
“I woke up one day and my whole life was bars,” Hackney says of his time in corporate America. “I say that (meaning) I entertained. I was a vice president. I’d take the (American Express) and take people out to dinners. Glass of wine. Get home at 9 p.m., and do the same thing (every day), you know?
“You move 13 times, you wake up, and that’s what you have. And it was good ... but I got out of corporate America because I got tired of it, got tired of doing that.”
After graduating from Texas Tech University, he worked for Frontier Communications for 10 years before working another decade with Deltacom, another communications company, he says. He was a finance major, according to the university’s December 17, 1988, commencement program. Addresses and properties tied to his name show up in multiple states through various public records searches. A relative, who did not want to be named and declined to comment for this story, confirmed his work experience.
When he was with Deltacom, his job was to fix branch offices, change their culture. Sometimes that meant firing people. He was fired once, too, after a regime change.
He doesn’t have a spouse or children, he says.
He worked in financial planning for a few years before starting his “small-business consulting” gig around 2015, he says. The job allows him the flexibility to protest. And in a roundabout way, he says, it’s what brought him to Hilton Head — he’d headed to the island after meeting with a client in Jacksonville.
But he says he knows what it’s like to have a cellphone cut off, to miss a rent payment. He’s been late with payments because of travel, and other times because he had to shuffle assets to come up with the money. His sister paid his rent a couple of times, when he was on the verge of eviction — he’d paid her back, he says.
More recently, according to court documents, she had to help him out with a problem at Hilton Head Hyundai.
When Hackney returned to the dealership in late August to pick up the Sonata, he became “furious,” according to Brad Martin. Following the May ditch accident, the service department kept the car to install a new engine, a repair warranted by a recall discovered when Hackney dropped it off. But Hackney claims the dealership gave him no documentation on the new motor. In addition, he says some of the insurance-covered, accident-related repairs weren’t made.
Over a two-day period, the tension grew.
Hilton Head Hyundai said it made all the required repairs and that Hackney initially refused to return the rental car he’d used in place of his Sonata.
Hackney says the dealership wouldn’t release his car, even after he’d paid his bill.
Really, his sister paid the requisite $1,000 deductible, by credit card — this, according to Martin, after the dealership’s check reader couldn’t recognize the information on Hackney’s check because it was “crumpled up” and otherwise in poor condition. (Hackney says his check was fine. Court documents include a scanned copy of what he says is that check, which he took the next day to Walmart and Publix, where, he claims, it was successfully read.)
Martin says Hackney threatened an employee — one who was trying to make things right — telling him, “I’m going to kill you.”
When asked about Martin’s claim, Hackney chuckles — which he says is what Mullen did when Martin brought it up in court.
“When you play a football game, and you say, ‘We’re gonna kill you, this is gonna hurt ... ,’ Hackney says, maintaining it was a competitive statement, if he even said it at all.
In a court filing in response to Hilton Head Hyundai’s lawsuit, Hackney wrote: “I do not intend to hurt anyone including the business, only change their behavior to improve the next customers experience as such in the publics best interest [sic].”
Martin said Hackney recently asked the dealership for $1 million “to go away.”
“I offered them a settlement,” Hackney says, “but it wasn’t $1 million.
“I offered them a settlement because I’m gonna win, but not to go away,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t be protesting if he doubted his cause — that wouldn’t be fair to the dealership.
P’s and q’s
On a warm February day, Hackney stands with his back to the dealership and reveals his strategy.
The protest has evolved from a squabble over parts and payments, he says.
A car passes, honks its horn.
“Those honks are Americans seeing me exercise my First Amendment rights outside of a car dealership,” he says.
A God-divined, free-speech spectacle with the aim of culture change, targeting a company that he believes targeted him.
A show of strength, that of an old sales guy like himself, who used to make cold calls and get hung up on and told to pound sand.
A step in his life’s journey, the next phase of which might include missionary work, maybe through Osteen’s ministry.
“My objective is to help people,” he says. “I’m helping people, you know. Because these guys are probably on their p’s and q’s, you know. And I tell people, I told someone the other day: ‘Go buy a car.’
“They said, ‘We just went in there and we want to buy this car.’ I said, ‘Did you have a good experience?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did they give you a good deal?’ ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Then go buy the car!’
“What I’m doing out here is working,” Hackney says. “I want them to sell.”
Months earlier, about 50 or so days into his protest, Hackney had called the highway his courtroom.
He’d talked about his bad ankle.
He’d joked about missing “all of football season.”
He’d voiced what might be either the greatest deadpan or biggest understatement in the history of Jasper County: “I’m just a regular guy with some car problems.”
Months later, as spring neared, as deadlines for legal paperwork loomed, he does not hesitate when asked: What happens if you go to court and lose?
“Then I’ve got to pay my debts, man,” he says.
“Then I was wrong.”
He grips his sign as the wind and the rush of cars tries to take it from him.
“Of course, I’ll appeal it.”