URBANA, Ill. (CN) – A 22-year-old who posted pictures of himself on Facebook burning an American flag sued the police officers who arrested him on Independence Day under an old Illinois flag-desecration law.
On July 3, 2016, Bryton Mellott posted a picture of himself burning an American flag in his backyard on Facebook. His post explained his action as an expression of his dismay with current affairs in the U.S.
“I am not proud to be an American. 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 basis,” Mellott wrote. “I would like to one day feel a sense of pride toward my nationality again. But too little progress has been made.”
He listed corporate political spending, police brutality and the lack of gun control as primary reasons for his disillusion.
“I am overwhelmingly ashamed, and I will demonstrate my feelings accordingly. #ArrestMe,” the post ends.
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.
The law provides that “Any person who publicly mutilates, defaces, defiles, tramples, or intentionally displays on the ground or floor any such flag [U.S. or Illinois state flag], standard, color or ensign shall be guilty of a Class 4 felony.”
Mellott spent five hours in jail before the State’s Attorney’s office released him because the flag burning law is unenforceable – in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that flag burning is a protected form of free speech under the First Amendment.
Despite the high court’s ruling, approximately 40 states still have a flag desecration law on the books because there is strong political opposition to repealing the laws. President-elect Donald Trump, for example, has repeatedly said there should be legal consequences for burning the American flag.
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.
“Mr. Mellott burned the flag and posted the photographs and caption to express his personal views about current events in America. Mr. Mellott had no intention of inciting violence with his Facebook post, and no reasonable person could conclude that Mr. Mellott intended to do so from the content of his Facebook post,” his complaint states.
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.”
The Urbana Police Department, employer of the three officers and sergeant named as defendants, did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.