Urbana Man Arrested In 2016 Flag-Burning Incident Files Lawsuit

January 12, 2017
Urbana resident Bryton Mellott (middle) addresses the media, along with ACLU of Illinois attorney Rebecca Glenberg and spokesperson Ed Yohnka.

Urbana resident Bryton Mellott (middle) addresses the media, along with ACLU of Illinois attorney Rebecca Glenberg and spokesperson Ed Yohnka at the Hyatt Place Hotel in Champaign Thursday.

Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

Bryton Mellott, who was arrested last July for burning an American flag and posting pictures of it on Facebook, has filed a federal lawsuit against four Urbana police officers. He wants to see Illinois' flag descreation law officially declared unconstitutional. The 22-year old Urbana resident says he burned the flag in response to the current political climate, and mass shootings, including the incident that claimed 49 lives at a gay nightclub in Orlando last summer.

"With my understanding that the action of burning a flag was supposed to be protected, doing so felt like a natural response to the resurgence of blind nationalism brought about by our current political climate. I see nationalism as a real and present threat to my community and I will continue to do what I can to speak out against it," Mellott read in a statement during a Thursday morning news conference in Champaign.

Mellott is gay, and said he hoped to address the violence brought against “members of my queer community, and against every community considered to be ‘other.”

The lawsuit was filed on his behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, and names four Urbana police officers (Kenneth Sprague, Jeremy Hale, Matthew McElhoe, and Andrew Charles.)

Last July 3, Mellott posted photos showing him holding a burning flag on Facebook. He was asked the day by Urbana police to remove the pictures. When Mellott refused, officers arrested him at work, and spent five hours in the Champaign County Jail.

Charges were later dropped after police realized that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling protects flag-burning under the 1st Amendment.

But police later suggested Mellott was detained for his own personal safety.

"I want to make it extremely clear that my arrest was never about protection," he said. "At no point did I feel safe during my stay in an overcrowded cell with 10 other men. These people showed no refrain from homophobic language and slurs."

Mellott says he's had no contact from Urbana Police after the incident. He says posting pictures of the flag-burning on Facebook brought him unwanted attention - but also some support.

“My immediate community has definitely been affected by this in a very positive way," Mellott said. "A lot of friends that maybe held opinions that I found unfavorable have come around to the issues that I’ve brought up, and they understand that these are real problems.”

ACLU Attorney Rebecca Glenburg says Illinois' law banning flag-burning stayed on the books even after the country's high court ruled in defense of such actions in 1989. She says the best way to address this issue is by filing a new bill with lawmakers this spring.

"There's no way to sue a state legislature for an unconstitutional law the way that the courts have set up the mechanism for constitutional cases," she said. "You really have to sue the individuals who were directly responsible for bringing about the violation of constitutional rights. The fact that the officers are defendants doesn't represent any sort of ill will towards those officers, but they are legally the proper defendants in a case like this."

Glenburg says whenever there's a question of arresting someone based on their speech or communication, police should think twice about it, and consult an attorney first, citing the opinion issued by Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz after the incident last July.

Mellott says no one responding to his actions has told him that they, too, planned on burning a flag.

"If they are planning to do this, I would say to them that they should be very firm, that their issues are important to them, that they believe that this is an appropriate course of action," he said. Because I did not take this lightly, and I would hope that they don’t either.”

Urbana Police declined comment on the lawsuit.

Story source: WILL