URBANA, Ill. — An Illinois man arrested after he posted a picture of himself burning an American flag over the holiday weekend will not be charged, a state’s attorney said Tuesday.
Bryton Mellott, 22, was arrested on Sunday by police in Urbana, who said they had received complaints from social media users who had seen Mellot’s post. Other callers expressed concern for Mellot’s safety as some people online threatened to cause him harm, police said.
Police said they made the arrest under a 2013 Illinois flag desecration law “to try to assure the safety of the public and Mr Mellott.”
The law allows for prosecution of individuals who publicly mutilate or deface a flag.
According to The News-Gazette, Bryton Mellott, 22, posted several photos on Facebook on Sunday showing him burning the American flag. On the photo post, he included a statement about why he is “not proud” to be an American.
Supreme Court ruling
However, Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz said charges would not be filed against Mellott because the Illinois flag desecration statute was contradictory to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed flag burning protected by the First Amendment.
The ruling, Texas v. Johnson, came after a Texas court’s conviction of Gregory Lee Johnson, who burned an American flag outside the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas in a protest against President Ronald Reagan.
The Supreme Court overturned the Texas court’s ruling, saying flag burning constituted “symbolic speech.”
Mellott’s Facebook posts
“In this moment, being proud of my country is to ignore 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,” Mellott wrote.
Before the photos were deleted, they were shared thousands of times on Facebook.
Urbana Sgt. Andrew Charles told The News-Gazette that his department started receiving calls about the Facebook photos. Charles looked at the post and said he saw many people making violent threats directed at Mellott and his place of employment, Wal-Mart.
“The volume of responses and specificity of threat against his place of employment (a location where an act of violence would likely cause harm to others), prompted police involvement in this case,” Urbana police said in a statement.
Charles told The News-Gazette that he spoke with Mellott and with Wal-Mart about the pictures. The police said they told Mellott that they “understood his freedom of speech,” but they said they believed his posts were putting his safety at risk as well as the safety of others.
According to police, Mellott continued to post similar photos to Facebook, so police arrested him under the state’s flag desecration law.
Police said they made the decision to arrest him after consulting with the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s office and weighing his free speech rights against concerns of public safety.
Reviewing Illinois law
Urbana police said they respected the decision not to proceed with filing charges. The Rietz’s office said it would ask Illinois legislators to consider reviewing the state’s flag desecration law “given the constitutional issues it presents.”