- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2017

An Illinois man arrested last summer after burning an American flag and posting proof on Facebook filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Wednesday challenging the constitutionality of the state’s desecration statute.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit in Urbana federal court this week on behalf of Bryton Mellott, 22, in an effort to ensure others don’t end up behind bars for similarly exercising their First Amendment rights.

Mr. Mellott spent five hours in the Champaign County jail on July 4 after authorities charged him with violating the state’s flag desecration law. Prosecutors ultimately decided to drop their case the following day, but the ACLU wants a federal judge to make it clear that authorities can’t arrest anyone else for following in the flag burner’s footsteps.

“It’s very clear that this law is unconstitutional and we want to make sure that in the future, Illinois law enforcement officers know that they cannot arrest people under this statute,” ACLU attorney Rebecca Glenberg said at a press conference Thursday announcing the lawsuit.

The 11-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois claims that Mr. Mellott’s decision to burn an American flag and post pictures online are both examples of protected speech, therefore placing the state’s desecration statute in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

A judge should declare that the Urbana Police Department violated Mr. Mellott’s First and Fourth Amendment rights by taking him into custody, declare the statute unconstitutional on its face and award compensatory damages and attorney fees in his favor, according to the lawsuit.

Speaking at Thursday’s press conference, Mr. Mellott said he is “incredibly disheartened that this lawsuit ever had to be filed,” the Urbana News-Gazette reported.

“The events I’ve experienced preceding and during my unlawful detainment shook what little faith I’ve held in our criminal-justice system,” Mr. Mellott said, according to the newspaper.

“I hold the opinion that open dissent is the highest form of American patriotism, 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,” he said.

Mr. Mellott shared the photographs of the flag burning in a July 3 Facebook post that generated approximately 200 comments in a matter of hours, according to the lawsuit, in addition to threats directed at Mr. Mellott and his employer.

Authorities were investigating those threats the following morning when they determined the Illinois flag desecration statute was still in effect and enforceable, the lawsuit says.

In sharing the images, Mr. Mellott posted several sentences explaining why he was driven to burn the flag.

“I am not proud to be an American,” he captioned the images. “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.”

On Thursday, Mr. Mellott told reporters he was particularly motivated to speak out in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre that killed dozens inside an Orlando gay bar weeks earlier.

“Specifically, that’s what made me think about this post,” he said, according to the News-Gazette. “That was what inspired a lot of the text that I had included with the picture.”

The Urbana Police Department did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, Courthouse News reported.

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