A 22-year-old man from Urbana, IL posted pictures of himself burning an American flag on his Facebook profile accompanied by the hashtag #arrestme. Local police obliged his request and promptly arrested the man, Bryton Mellott, for violating Section 49-1 of Illinois state law that declares flag desecration as a class IV felony. The charges were later dropped because it was found that the lower court’s ruling infringes on the Supreme court’s ruling that flag burning is protected as free speech. Mellott has enraged the internet and sparked a fierce debate over whether or not flag burning should be protected by the First Amendment.
Mellott first posted the photos on July 3, 2016 along with a post describing why he is “not proud to be an American.” The post went viral almost instantly and was shared thousands of times before the post was removed, along with Mellott’s entire profile, shortly following his arrest. Mellott’s entire, rage-inducing, post can be seen below:
Mellot, a member of the LGBT community, states that he decided to burn the flag because of the “atrocities committed against people of color, people living in poverty, people who identify as women and against my own queer community on a daily basis.”
The Urbana police department was suddenly flooded with hundreds of calls from concerned citizens asking local police to investigate Mellot and his Facebook page. Mellott’s Facebook profile was also flooded with death threats. It was discovered by internet sleuths that he was an employee of the local Walmart. The store he worked at began receiving threats that other employees of the store would be in danger if Mellot was not fired. The threats became so frequent that Urbana police were forced to step in.
Police arrived and asked Mellott to remove the post and photos. Mellott refused. He was charged with desecration of a flag, a charge that was later dropped, and disorderly conduct, both as an offender and a victim. Police later explained that he was charged as both an offender and a victim because police fielded calls from people making threatening calls against Mellott while he himself committed an act that was “causing others to be put at risk of harm,” according to local police.
Mellott was taken into custody and is set to be arraigned on Tuesday. Police state that this is the first time in 30 years that they have arrested someone under the flag desecration statue. Sgt. Andrew Charles of the Urbana Police Department states that they had no other choice but to step in to diffuse the situation before it took a violent turn. He told Forbes.com:
“I just think it’s an unfortunate situation when freedom of speech issues come into conflict with safety issues, Concerns have to be balanced. This wasn’t an issue with anyone at the police department being personally offended by his speech. But the reaction that it was gathering, and the concern for the safety of all involved forced us into a reaction.”
Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz also issued a statement to the press explaining why the charges were dropped against Mellott. She cited Texas v. Johnson, 491 US 397. She told the media:
“The State’s Attorney’s Office is declining to file charges against (Bryton) Mellott as the act of burning a flag is protected free speech according to the US Supreme Court decision, Texas v. Johnson, 491 US 397 (1989),”
It is unclear as to whether or not Mellott will face charges for disorderly conduct. Many members of the military community are calling Mellott’s actions disrespectful to the veterans that fought for his right to express himself freely. They state that the flag represent much more than the government that Mellott is protesting against. It’s clear that to many Americans the flag represents not just the government but the values of life, liberty, and freedom.
Mellott has learned the hard way that, while the First Amendment prevents you from the reprocussions of government intervention it doesn’t protect you from criticism from other citizens.
“We have considered 720 ILCS 5/49-1, Flag Desecration, an Illinois statute currently in effect,” the statement reads. “This statute was the basis for the decision by Urbana Police officers to arrest Mellott. While that statute remains in effect, it is contradictory to the US Supreme Court ruling in Texas v. Johnson. We will be discussing this issue with our local legislators and asking that they consider reviewing this statute given the constitutional issues it presents.”
Mellott has learned the hard way that, while the First Amendment protects you from government intervention, it does not absolve you of responsibility for your actions.