On July 4, a day on which we’re supposed to celebrate our freedoms, 22-year-old Bryton Mellott of Urbana, Illinois spent the morning in jail because he had desecrated an American flag and posted the image on Facebook:
Along with the image, Mellott posted this:
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…
It didn’t matter, of course, whether or not you agreed with him. The flag is merely a symbol, and desecrating it is perfectly legal. In 1989, the Supreme Court even banned any statutes that punished people for doing it. (Interesting trivia: Justice Antonin Scalia was in the 5-4 majority defending free speech. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was on the other side.)
Mellott was charged with flag desecration, which is still a punishable offense under Illinois law, but it’s a law that ought to be unenforceable.
The official line from the police was that Mellott was arrested and detained, not for burning the flag, but (in the ACLU’s words) to “ensure his own personal safety.”
Yesterday, Mellott, with the help of the ACLU of Illinois, announced that he had filed a federal lawsuit against the people involved in his arrest with the ultimate goal of officially declaring the flag desecration law unconstitutional:
“I hold the opinion that open dissent is the highest form of American patriotism;” Mr. Mellott said in prepared remarks announcing the lawsuit. “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.”
“There simply was no justification for Bryton to be arrested for his political statement,” said Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Illinois senior staff attorney. “If police were concerned about Bryton’s safety, they should have taken action against whomever they thought was compromising his safety, not against the person engaged in constitutionally protected speech.”
“We are asking the court to strike down the Illinois law to ensure that law enforcement in Urbana and across Illinois know that this statute cannot be enforced.” added Glenberg.
The lawsuit says that the Urbana Police Department officers and sergeant “directly and proximately caused, and continues to cause, Mr. Mellott mental and emotional distress, anxiety, discomfort, humiliation, a loss of self-esteem, and damage to his reputation.”
I hope this is a slam dunk case for him because he didn’t do anything wrong. At worst, he did something unpopular. That’s not a criminal offense.
(Large portions of this article were posted earlier)