URBANA, IL – An Illinois man was arrested after he set the American flag on fire and posted photos of the act on Facebook. But the incident has sparked a debate on social media about whether the act should be considered an expression of free speech.
According to The News-Gazette, Bryton Mellott, 22, posted several photos on Facebook on July 3 showing him burning the American flag. On the photo post, he included a statement about why he is “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,” 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, Walmart.
Urbana police released a statement on Monday that said, “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.”
Charles told The News-Gazette that he spoke with Mellott and with Walmart 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.
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.
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
Writing on his Facebook page, Mellott said he believes “blind nationalism is a corrosive thing.”
“If you have pride then that’s fine, but I don’t. This is me, not having pride. Not attacking others who disagree. Someday I hope that changes. But that change starts with recognizing that there are problems; fundamental problems that very much stem from nationalistic attitudes,” he added.
Urbana police said they respected the decision not to proceed with filing charges.