Arrested Flag Burner Sues Arresting Officers
from the burn-baby-burn dept
Last summer, we brought to you the story of how Bryton Mellott, a young man in Urbana, IL, was arrested for posting a picture of himself burning the American flag on his social media accounts. The story was strange on a variety of levels. First, the law utilized to arrest him, one of many flag-burning prohibitions that exist in laws at the state level, had been declared unconstitutional decades prior to it having ever been enacted. Burning the flag has been codified as a form of protected free speech, no matter how stomach-turning any individual might find it. It was for that reason that the local State’s Attorney’s office requested that the police let Mellott go and didn’t even attempt to bring any kind of charges against him, because they couldn’t. The police report also noted that Mellott had been taken in for disorderly conduct, referencing the backlash his actions caused, which is insane. Blaming a victim of threats for receiving those threats as a reaction to protected speech ought to be beneath the common citizen, nevermind those we actually entrust to enforce the law.
But perhaps the strangest part of the story, previously un-noted by us in our original post, the impetus for Mellott’s arrest was one officer’s apparent desperate search to find something for which to arrest him.
Mellott’s post was widely shared and had received 200 comments by the following morning. But just 12 hours after his post, Urbana police officers arrested him at his job at Wal-Mart after Mellott’s supervisor called and reported threats made by unknown people against Mellott and the store. Officer Jeremy Hale researched the Illinois flag-desecration statute, found it was still on the books, and decided of his own accord to enforce it.
Policing in this country isn’t traditionally done in this way. Complaints to a local law enforcement office aren’t generally then used to scour the books for some potentially applicable law. For this reason, Mallott is suing the three arresting officers for violating his civil rights.
Mellott filed a civil-rights lawsuit late Wednesday in Urbana federal court, claiming the three arresting officers knew or should have known that flag burning has been a protected means of political protest for almost 30 years. He says they violated his civil rights by arresting him. Mellott seeks compensatory damages and a court order that the Illinois flag-desecration statute is unconstitutional. He is represented by Rebecca Glenberg with the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Open dissent is the highest form of American patriotism,” Mellott said in a statement. “And it was a frightening display of irony that on the Fourth of July, I should be taken from my workplace to sit in a county jail for exercising this liberty.”
It’s difficult to see how this lawsuit isn’t a winner. The Illinois state law is, on its face, flatly unconstitutional. That it was enacted decades after this question was decided says everything about the Illinois legislature and the rise of nationalism nationally and nothing about whether or not it might be remotely legal or enforceable. For Mellott to have been arrested and held for hours in a zealous attempt to punish protected speech, and on Independence Day no less, is about as blatant example of an infringement on the First Amendment of which I can think.