An Illinois man who was arrested on the Fourth of July last year after posting photos of himself burning an American flag filed a lawsuit Wednesday.
Anybody with a basic understanding of Constitutional law could have seen that coming, but not the Urbana Police Department who arrested Bryton Mellott.
And certainly not the Illinois legislators who passed a state law banning flag burning despite the Supreme Court having long ruled that burning the flag is protected by the First Amendment.
Now the 22-year-old man is trying to get the state law ruled unconstitutional with his lawsuit. The state law is one of several state laws that ban the burning of the flag as a form of protest, even though most of those laws are never enforced.
Such state laws are already invalid after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled separately, in 1989 and 1990, that flag burning and other forms of damage are constitutionally protected free speech. However, dozens of states still have the laws.
Police in Urbana used Illinois’ flag desecration law to arrest local resident Bryton Mellott on July 4 of last year. He said he carefully planned his demonstration to protest racial discrimination, poverty and other injustices, and then posted six photographs of his actions on Facebook. The posts, which generated hundreds of comments, led police officers to arrest Mellott while he worked at Wal-Mart and detain him for several hours. He was released without being charged.
Mellott, who is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, was expected to discuss the lawsuit at a Thursday news conference in Champaign. The suit was filed late Wednesday.
“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.”
Urbana police said they arrested him for his own safety to protect him from those making threats against him, instead of arresting the ones making the threats, which happens to be an actual crime.
After arresting Mellott on charges of flag desecration and disorderly conduct, Urbana police consulted with the state attorney’s office who advised police to release him.
Mellott filed the lawsuit with the help of the ACLU.
“It’s very clear that this law is unconstitutional and we want to make sure that in the future, Illinois law enforcement officers know that they cannot arrest people under this statute,” ACLU attorney Rebecca Glenberg told the Associated Press.