One day after Bryton Mellott's photo of himself burning an American flag led to his arrest in Urbana, Ill., the local prosecutor says no charges will be filed against Mellott. The 22-year-old was released Monday, after questions arose over Illinois' flag desecration law.
Enacted in 2013, that law was the basis for Mellott's arrest. But the state's attorney says it contradicts the Supreme Court's ruling on this issue.
Mellott's brush with controversy began after he posted a photo of himself holding a burning flag on Sunday night. As member station WILL reports, "By Monday morning, July Fourth, Urbana Police were receiving calls about it. Some calls complained about the flag-burning, and others expressed concern for Mellott's safety."
Shortly after 1 a.m. Monday, Mellott posted a note to his Facebook page saying, "So it'd be super-duper if the death threats could stop."
Mellott didn't immediately respond to a message from NPR seeking comment and clarification of his post. Citing local newspaper the News-Gazette and other media outlets, WILL reprinted the text that had originally accompanied Mellott's flag photo before the message was deleted. Because it provides context for this story, we'll follow suit in posting it here, unedited:
"I would like to one day feel a sense of pride toward my nationality again. But too little progress has been made. Too many people still suffer at the hands of politicians influenced by special interests. too many people are still being killed and brutlized by a police force plagued with authority complexes and racism. Too many people are allowed to be slaughtered for the sale of gun manufacturer profits. Too many Americans hold hate in their hearts in the name of their religion, and for fear of others. .... I do not have pride in my country. I am overwhelmingly ashamed, and I will demonstrate my feelings accordingly. #ArrestMe."
The Urbana Police Department arrested Mellott on Monday; in a news release issued later that day, the department said that many people who responded to Mellott's Facebook post "threatened violence against Mellott and his place of employment, which fielded a large number of calls regarding the post."
That news release ended with a statement urging the public "to express themselves in a peaceful way and to not retaliate against unpopular speech."
We'll note that according to the News-Gazette, Mellott works at a Wal-Mart.
Citing the volume and specificity of the threats, the department says that after speaking to Mellott and his employer, "Mellott was placed under arrest for flag desecration" — but that he was later released, after a representative of the Champaign County Office of the State's Attorney raised questions about the state's flag law.
Those questions led State's Attorney Julia Rietz to decline to file charges against Mellott on Tuesday, saying that despite the Illinois law, "the act of burning a flag is protected free speech according to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Texas v. Johnson, 491 US 397 (1989)."
In an update issued Tuesday afternoon, Urbana Police Chief Patrick J. Connolly says that his officers acted in good faith and had reviewed current state law. When officers went to Mellott's workplace to investigate the threats, Connolly says, "they made contact with the poster who declined to assist in deescalating the situation by removing the public postings."
Connolly continues, "Given the nature of the escalating negative landscape and the concern for the poster, fellow employees at the workplace, and innocent customers, the officers took action to take the poster in custody pursuant to the Illinois Flag Desecration statute."
He adds that the Urbana Police Department "recognizes that this is a case where the right of free speech may have been in conflict with the safety of innocent and uninvolved citizens."
After the prosecutor's decision was announced, Connolly issued the news release we quoted above. He finished his note by saying, "We respect the analysis of the State Attorney's Office and their determination not to proceed with the prosecution in this matter."
In addition to the invective that met Mellott's post, there were also some more measured responses. Consider this one, from a man in Columbia, S.C.:
"Since I've served in the military, I suppose I should be angry that you're burning a piece of cloth made in China, but I'm honestly not. I'm more angry at the fact taxpayer money is being wasted to arrest and suppress someone who was speaking his mind. Still, you have to understand that this was in really bad taste. You seem like a good guy, but you should find better ways at channeling your anger to make a positive change. I hope you find happiness bud."