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Illinois Cops Arrest 22-Year-Old for Flag Burning, Then Remember They Can't

'Citizens should not permit them to evade responsibility,' says First Amendment lawyer Ari Cohn.

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Flag
Screenshot via Bryton Mellott / Facebook

An Illinois 22-year-old was arrested after burning the American flag and posting the pictures on Facebook. People who saw the pictures called the Urbana Police Department, and the cops showed up to arrest Bryton Mellott on Monday morning.

He was then booked into jail—ostensibly for violating Illinois's prohibition on flag-burning, and for disorderly conduct.

Mellott, who self-identifies as "part of the queer community," wrote on Facebook that he was ashamed of the atrocities committed by the U.S. against "people of color, people living in poverty," and other identity groups.

A representative for the police department told Forbes:

The free speech that he was exhibiting, while it was distasteful to some, free speech is free speech," Charles told me. "It's when you say things that are inciteful and make it clear that you are associated with someone that doesn't share your ideas; it got raised to a level where a reasonable person there would fear for their safety. It's similar to yelling fire in a movie theater."

This, of course, is nonsense. Burning the American flag is protected political expression, plain and simple—even if it makes other people feel unsafe. (Don't even get me started on the lazy, inappropriate use of the fire-in-a-crowded-theater example.) The Supreme Court has repeatedly and explicitly upheld the right to burn the flag.

Thankfully, the Urbana Police Department finally got around to remembering this fact. Mellot has been released, and will not face charges. But the cops are still pretty proud of themselves for arresting him:

"Laws dealing with questions of Constitutional rights are extremely complex. 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. Our officers strive every day to achieve a balance between public safety and preservation of Constitutional rights. In this circumstance, our officers acted in good faith and in reliance on a state law that was passed by our legislature in an attempt to do just that. We respect the analysis of the State's Attorney's Office and their determination not to proceed with the prosecution in this matter."

Ari Cohn, a First Amendment lawyer and alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, disagrees that police intervention was either prudent or necessary.

"To meet the legal standard for incitement, speech must encourage imminent lawless action. Mellot's Facebook posts clearly did not," wrote Cohn in an email to Reason. "Nobody had anything to fear from Mellot's posts showing him burning the flag and explaining what he believes the problems with our country to be."

Cohn continues:

One must also wonder, given the protestations from the police that they did not arrest Mellot because they were offended by his speech, why he was charged with flag desecration at all. If the issue truly was safety, what purpose does the desecration charge serve? The series of events and justifications reeks of a police department failing to own up to their grievous mistake.

If the Urbana police were concerned about the threats made against Mellot or his employer, the proper, constitutional, response would be to deal with those making the threats. Instead, on the very day we celebrate the freedoms our nation guarantees, they chose to arrest someone for exercising one of the most precious rights we hold. That is deeply lamentable, and citizens should not permit them to evade responsibility.

In a free society, people have just as much of a right to criticize their nation as they do to celebrate it. Allowing them to burn the flag on the Fourth of July is an easy test of our commitment to the principles of the First Amendment. No matter how offensive, unsafe, or dangerous this act may seem to some, it is nevertheless protected by the Bill of Rights: the same document that guarantees all of Americans' other, equally essential liberties.

Of course, many politicians express a routine desire to abridge the First Amendment and prohibit desecration of the flag. One of them is the presumptive Democratic Party presidential candidate: Exactly 10 years ago, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton—who has an abysmal record on free speech issues—launched an effort to outlaw flag-burning.

NEXT: How political ignorance bolsters racial, ethnic, and xenophobic prejudice

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  1. What’s the penalty for burning a FOP flag?

    1. Disrespect of cop carries a summary punishment of up to death.

      1. I think it’s just a warning shot in the back of the head.

  2. *reads list of complaints*

    No good guys in this story.

  3. Fuck this kid and fuck the police and more generally fuck Illinois

    1. Also, fuck flags.

      1. You gonna back up that diagnosis with a twerking video, or what?

          1. I love you, man.

          2. Cool bi—OH GOD. Not at all disappointed.

          3. More please.

    2. Y’all fuck them. I’m picky about what I touch with that.

  4. And until there’s actual punishment of police officers for illegal arrests, what motivation do they have not to arrest him?

    1. The death penalty should be reserved for police who violate people’s constitutional rights. Zero tolerance. Ignorance is no excuse.

      1. Relax, I’m sure that additional training will be given.

  5. when a police spokesperson says “free speech is free speech” and then goes on to tell you why free speech is a threat, then we should all be very afraid. between this story and the fbi, today isn’t a good day for law enforcement.

    1. Are there good days for law enforcement?

    2. Today would actually seem to be a good day for law enforcement – now free from the fetters of rule of law, and able to arrest who they choose and ignore criminal behavior by those in power. All hail the Emporer!

    3. between this story and the fbi, today isn’t a good day

      Around here, we refer to those as ‘libertarian moments’.

  6. Facebook that he was ashamed of the atrocities committed by the U.S. against “people of color, people living in poverty,” and other identity groups.

    I like how the word ‘atrocity’ can mean anything from being denied a license or not given low-cost housing, to dying in a gas-chamber in a concentration camp, and having your body bulldozed into a pit while your children watch… who are next.

    1. The greatest atrocity ever was when I was served a Margarita made with sour mix at a Mexican restaurant.

      1. i’m pretty sure that’s a hate crime.

      2. Asking for a margarita, isn’t have cultural appropriation?

  7. Mellott, who self-identifies as “part of the queer community,”
    Really, self-identifies? Just say he’s gay, which was apparent as soon as I saw his stance and those flowers on his head.

    1. Maybe he was just going to San Francisco.

    2. Look, just ignore for a second the gay little flower wreath and the fact that this kid was called a gaywad basically every day since first grade and consider that he might not actually be homosexual.

    3. self-identifies as “part of the queer community”

      If that isn’t a long and pretentious way of saying “is gay”, just what exactly does it mean?

      1. Someone who hangs around with lesbians hoping one will get drunk enough to sleep with him?

        1. Which may not be legal. Even though larger women often seem to do say with attractive gay men all the time. Does that make them predators?

        2. no,no,no. Hoping 2 will sleep with me…er him.

        3. Or one who hangs with a woman hoping she thinks she can make him straight.

      2. “Queer” is roughly equivalent to “activist gay” or “professional gay”.

        Anyway, kudos once again to Robby for trolling us by including this completely irrelevant info.

        1. Actually it is relevant, considering that very info might win a course case if you hope to prove his intent to exercise free speech via “peacefully assembling” and not an intent to harm.

          1. derp, **court, not “course”

          2. What intent to harm? How can you harm someone by burning a flag unless you set them on fire? It’s free speech no matter what his intent was, and offending people–even intentionally–should never be a crime.

      3. I really hate all of the “_____ community” shit. As if sharing one or two characteristics makes a community. Seems like it should just be insulting to the people getting lumped together just because of being gay or having a particular skin color or ethnic background.

        1. Why are you such a homophobic racist?

    4. No no no. This guy’s not /gay/. He’s one of those newfangled sexual identity thingamajiggers. Ya know, the ones that are meant to claim minority status as not-straight without all the hassle of actually having to be attracted to the same sex.

    5. Maybe he’s actually straight but just wants to hang out with the cool kids.

  8. In a free society, people have just as much of a right to criticize their nation as they do to celebrate it.

    Yes, but what about in Illinois?

    1. Depends on how much you’ve paid the governor.

      1. Not Rauner, right? He’s certainly softened on some positions but is pretty decidedly socially liberal/fiscally conservative (which explains his unpopularity in the state).

        Not the best political candidate by any means (and it’s a bit of ‘the two legged man in an ass-kicking contest’) but IL has blatantly elected and favored far more blatantly corrupt/statist.

  9. At this point. If I find myself in a theater that is on fire, leaving quietly is beginning to seem like the best option.

  10. If I were designing a pro-gaybashing poster, couldn’t do much better than this prick.

  11. Would if she had less muscle.

  12. Mellott, who self-identifies as “part of the queer community,” wrote on Facebook that he was ashamed of the atrocities committed by the U.S. against “people of color, people living in poverty,” and other identity groups

    Well, he’s also lucky it’s not illegal to be a complete idiot.

    (Nor should it be.)

  13. He’s just lucky they didn’t shoot him and his entire family, pets included.

  14. Mellott, who self-identifies as “part of the queer community,” wrote on Facebook that he was ashamed of the atrocities committed by the U.S. against “people of color, people living in poverty,” and other identity groups.

    Kiss my ass, you collectivist little fuckface

    FYI- burn away. You should have inverted the flag, for extra dramatic effect.

    1. He should come to California and burn a Mexican flag. Hopefully, I’ll have time to buy popcorn.

  15. Come to think of it, why not soak the damned thing in kerosene and wrap yourself in it before you light it? Have your second upload the video to youtube.

  16. What if the guy would have decided he’s no longer gay and he burnt a rainbow flag? Imagine the outrage burning across the intertoobz right now.

  17. Urbana PD Post on FB:

    On July 4, 2016, photographs of a burning American Flag and accompanying language posted on Facebook led to significant emotional reactions to the posts, including but not limited to: death threats made against the person responsible for the posts. The Urbana Police Department received numerous calls, complaints, and concerns through their front desk, the Department’s Facebook page, and the METCAD dispatch system. These calls related concerns about the safety of people because of the postings and subsequent threats. At the time the complaints were received, the poster of the images was employed by a large retail employer, and the retailer had also received threats as a result of the posts. The investigating officers learned that the poster was at that time present at his place of employment. When Urbana officers reported to that store, they made contact with the poster who declined to assist in deescalating the situation by removing the public postings.

    1. 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 into custody pursuant to the Illinois Flag Desecration statute. Specifically, there was concern that any one of the attacks threatened would likely be in the immediate vicinity of innocent bystanders and would therefore, put them at risk. Prior to making that arrest, Urbana police officers reviewed Illinois law and determined that Illinois Statute 720 ILCS 5/49-1 which became effective on January 1, 2013, and appeared to be current and valid law. No court cases were found at that time holding that statute to be unconstitutional or otherwise invalid.

      1. Laws dealing with questions of Constitutional rights are extremely complex. 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. Our officers strive every day to achieve a balance between public safety and preservation of Constitutional rights. In this circumstance, our officers acted in good faith and in reliance on a state law that was passed by our legislature in an attempt to do just that. We respect the analysis of the State’s Attorney’s Office and their determination not to proceed with the prosecution in this matter.
        Patrick J. Connolly
        Chief of Police
        Urbana Police Department

    2. When Urbana officers reported to that store, they made contact with the poster who declined to assist in deescalating the situation by removing the public postings.

      1. Fifty years ago, these guys would have been saying, “That Negro refused to sensibly leave town like we told him to.”

      2. Yeah, this is going to be a big payout. Deliberate deprivation of a constitutional right? Urbana may as well start writing the check now.

    3. Yeah. Maybe they should have been looking for and arresting the people making death threats. You know, people actually committing crimes.

    4. It sounds like obfuscated writing is a skill these people practice.

  18. Looks like from the picture it was a fire hazard

    Wait your rights and fucking contigent on what ‘victim group’ you are in. So from them it’s ok to burn the flad in protest becuase you are gender queer and have backwards far-left views, but if you were in a different group would that still be ok?

    1. Not sure how you can tell that from the picture. For all we know he has a hose nearby in case anything happens. Anyway, it’s Independence day. Fire hazards are a requirement.

  19. Also, if you hate the US to much as to burn the flag…. why are you here? This isn’t fucking communist East Berlin where you had to put up a wall and gun down people trying to flee. You can leave anytime you want

    1. Fuck you, man. I don’t hate the US. I am kinda just apathetic towards it.

      But I burned all the flags I burned because the nationalistic recreation organization I joined told me that it was the proper way to retire flags.

      1. The Boy Scouts?

    2. Maybe he hates the government and loves his home. There are plenty of reasons one might want to burn a flag besides hating the US so much you would rather live somewhere else.

      I kind of want to burn a flag just because I find it funny that people care so much about people burning flags. It’s just a fucking banner used to tell which country different ships come from.

      1. Hell, burning is the preescribed method of disposal for flags, at least according to my late (former Eagle Scout) Father.

    3. esteve7
      “Also, if you hate the US to much as to burn the flag…. why are you here?”

      Make up your mind. Was it dangerous or was it because you were offended and/or special treatment for his identity group? Better make sure you are grinding the right axe and not compromising the principle of respecting rights because it rubs you the wrong way.

  20. “Wait- fag burning is illegal?”

    1. “How am I supposed to get me smoke then?”

      /Confused Irish smoker

  21. I’m confused why there’s so much hate for this kid. If a libertarian burned a flag because he felt solidarity with… I dunno, everyone who gets fisted daily by the IRS, would we have so much disdain? I mean, my annoyance with the overuse of the word “atrocity” aside, it’s important we preserve the right to peacefully protest our government.

    1. I do appreciate his disinclination to “assist in deescalating” the confrontation. Just doubt he’s protesting FDR’s interning of Japanese-American citizens.

      1. If Trump hadn’t time traveled back in time to become Literally Hitler and use his mind control ray on FDR, then FDR, who had no moral faults whatsoever, would have never done that horrible act of oppression which therefore was purely the Republican’s fault.

        It is known.

    2. There’s the issue of whether he had a right to do this without being arrested, and the idea of whether it was a good thing for him to do this.

      If the USA had an authoritarian constitution allowing the current abuses, maybe Americans would lose their patriotism, I don’t know, but the question doesn’t arise because we have a fine constitution, it’s just not being used.

      1. Therefore I would hope a liberty-oriented individual wouldn’t burn the flag in protest of government oppression, as if to imply the government equals the country.

        1. The flag doesn’t equal the country, either.

          Also, flag burning can have countless different meanings. It depends on the intent of the individual.

      2. We just ignore the document. That’s the… “atrocity”

    3. Not speaking for all libertarians but… yes. The flag is a symbol of the country, not just the state. Burning it is almost always (accurately) taken to indicate a broad-brush hatred of American society rather than specific actions of the US government or even a generalized dislike of the state as a philosophical concept. Burning the tax code would be more apropos for the latter type of protest — and yes, people who protest in such a general way against the societies in which they live and prosper are usually dipshits.

      1. Not speaking for all libertarians but… no. I’ve only ever seen it burned in protest of the state, not the people.

        Plus the flag looks stupid. I mean just look at it. It’s dumb!! No cool heraldry, or interesting symbols, just some boring five-pointed stars and horizontal bars. We SHOULD have used the kickass snake-flag, but instead we chose the boring and ugly LINES AND STARS design!! Why NOT burn the stupid-looking flag as the representation of a stupid-looking state??

        “Burning the tax code would be more apropos for the latter type of protest”

        That sounds like a fire hazard to try to torch that much paper. You’ll probably set your neighborhood on fire trying that. The arsonist inside me makes me say go for it anyways.

        1. The flag is literally a symbol of states. The original thirteen states and the fifty current states. It’s a statist flag up, down, and sideways!

      2. I… thought you aren’t a libertarian.

      3. How about burning the Presidential flag then? Would that get a pass or a visit from the Secret Service?

    4. His political beliefs are completely irrelevant to the topic but for some mysterious reason Robby chose to include them anyway.

      1. His political beliefs are completely irrelevant

        Checking your privilege – how does it fucking work?

        Oh.

      2. On a very philosophical level, yes. It doesn’t matter at ALL if someone is arrested for political speech, what that political speech actually was, in the grand scheme of whether locking someone up for that speech is ethical…

        However when someone gets arrested for political speech, I’d say that the content of that speech is important to the STORY and has a place in the news.

        1. Yeah. It’s relevant to the story if not to the central issue of free expression.

        2. Eternal Blue Sky,
          “However when someone gets arrested for political speech, I’d say that the content of that speech is important to the STORY and has a place in the news.”

          Yeah, so everyone gets a shot at judging the content in determining if this guy should get the fuck stick treatment or not. That old saying, I may disagree with what you are saying but will defend to the death your right to say it” is very nuanced and complicated (much like his rights) and cannot be applied uniformly/consistently. Is that about right?!! The ONLY relevant part of the speech is the criminal elements of that speech as to why it would not be protected IMHO.

      3. but for some mysterious reason Robby chose to include them anyway.

        That mysterious reason being “Soave panders to his audience”.

    5. Because he perpetuates wrongthink and is of the Enemy.

    6. His complaints were kind of dumb, but I don’t care one bit that he burned a flag, and I find the picture quite amusing.

  22. Did he have the theme music from the Wonder Woman teevee show playing in the background?

    Inquiring minds, and all…

  23. Why is this like the exact same thing as the Futurama episode where Zoidberg eats the Earth Flag on “Freedom Day”.

    1. Except, you know, without the retaliatory conquest of earth by crab people…

      1. “You didn’t expect us to even go to a museum, much less steal this ancient heat-seeking missile!”

        “I don’t even know you.”

      2. “You didn’t expect us to even go to a museum, much less steal this ancient heat-seeking missile!”

        “I don’t even know you.”

  24. so much hate for this kid.

    Speaking solely for myself, it’s the flagrance and pretentiousness of his collectivism. He’s not striking a blow for freedom, he’s mourning the government’s reluctance to crush the thought criminals who have oppressed his favorite identity groups, even as white male capitalists roam free.

    1. He’s a stupid kid doing what stupid kids do. Maybe he’ll wise up some day. In any case, it didn’t deserve a beat down from the po-po. That’s just retarded authoritarian bullshit. I respect the flag and the republic for which it stands. I have stolen, burned, and replaced tattered flags flown by careless people. But I fully support the right of anyone to burn it in protest of whatever the fuck they want to protest about our nation or government. That is about as symbolic of freedom and liberty as one can find.

  25. I’d say that if a cop arrests someone but the prosecutor and/or grand jury doesn’t file charges, or having filed the charges dismisses them, then the arresting officer should have to write a detailed report saying whether he agrees or disagrees with the prosecutor/grand jury’s action and if not why not. (the cop would be allowed to take the Fifth in lieu of submitting a report, in which case the police chief would prepare a report).

    At the very least, the bureaucratic hassle of doing a detailed report would be a slight deterrent to wrongful arrests. Ideally, of course, the report would be useful to the falsely-arrested person to get damaging information about whether the arrest was justified or not. Good information for wrongful arrest lawsuits.

    And if the cop suggests that the prosecutor released a guilty person, then that should trigger a disciplinary investigation of the prosecutor – so no more of this “well, gosh, the prosecutor just didn’t like our case, those are the breaks.”

    1. And on the prosecutor’s end, they should be personally liable for wrongful prosecutions.

      So they wouldn’t be tempted to prosecute every case the police gives them out of fear of being investigated for “letting a criminal loose.”

    2. The police chief needs a ride on a ducking stool for not having positive control of his subordinates.

  26. It always strikes me as odd.

    The way people protest the country using the flag.

    Is the exact same way we respectfully retired flags in Boy Scouts.

  27. What’s distasteful to me is deciding how much to care about someone based on their skin color or sexuality.

  28. Our officers strive every day to achieve a balance between public safety and preservation of Constitutional rights

    They’re called rights because they’re not subject to ‘balancing’, you useless toolbag

  29. The First Amendment compels me to stand up for the free speech of shitheads, but just because I stand up for their right to be shitheads doesn’t mean they aren’t shitheads.

    In fact, standing up for their rights makes me calling them out all the more compelling.

    If you stand up for some shithead’s rights and then call him out as a shithead, it means you’re to be taken seriously. If you will only stand up for the rights of people you like, then why should anyone take your commitment to individual rights seriously?

    1. ^THIS!

  30. RE: Illinois Cops Arrest 22-Year-Old for Flag Burning, Then Remember They Can’t
    ‘Citizens should not permit them to evade responsibility,’ says First Amendment lawyer Ari Cohn.

    This man should be put to death for flag burning for the following reasons.
    First, this is an expression of free speech which can never be tolerated in any socialist slave state, especially ours.
    Secondly, this man is showing contempt not only for our beloved socialist paradise, he also showing his hate for all those who are working hard to make our country into a socialist totalitarian wonderland.
    Thirdly, he wears glasses. The wise, kind and benevolent dictator of Cambodia had people who wore glasses put do death back in the 1970’s. It was a wise policy then, it’s a wise policy today.
    Fourthly, he did not get a permit (permission) from the local commissar in his district. Expressing oneself without permission is not only being rude to his obvious betters, it smells of contempt for those kind enough to take the time and trouble to oppress us all.
    Lastly, it is obvious that he used the politically incorrect material called gasoline to hasten the burning of the flag. He had to purchase said gasoline which only lines the pockets of the nefarious capitalist who find, manufacture and sell this product. Needless to say, such capitalist activities should be more than just frowned upon, they should be punished accordingly.
    The death penalty is too good for this animal.

    1. I’m sure that got some heads spinning round round baby right round.

  31. Laws dealing with questions of Constitutional rights are extremely complex.

    Nope. It’s the convoluted excuses that jackbooted thugs come up with to ignore the bill of rights that are complex.

    -jcr

    1. Which is why Urbana had better just cut a check to this kid. The case is open and shut and the cops had fair warning from the Supreme Court.

  32. So how many flag burning episodes are we going to see from Keene, NH now, I wonder? 😛
    I mean I certainly have some sharp words for the state of affairs with our government (and for the population who are either actively or passively encouraging it) but I don’t think I’d want to burn one of the things that reminded me of the awesomely insane (or insanely awesome?) actions of the founders.
    Personally, I find burning our flag disrespectful, but yes, the principle that the people should have the right to peacefully assemble and criticize their government wins out over my distaste for flag burning.

  33. KA-CHING!

  34. I moved last year. For the year previous I asked strangers for opinions on where I should relocate. The only response I ever heard twice was: NOT ILLINOIS.

    1. Awesome.

  35. Fkn pigs.

  36. I dislike laws against “flag burning”. I also dislike people who burn flags; they tend to be self-aggrandizing nitwits. It strikes me (and has for some time) that in most places there are regulations about fires above a certain size, at least in public places. It seems to me that the majority of people who burn flags would run afoul of such regulations, and that citing them for having a fire without a permit would be about the right level of response.

    Of course, they could apply for such a permit, just as the KKK is required to do when they hold a cross burning ceremony. Which would place the flag burners on a social level with the KKK …. where they belong.

    This particular nitwit probably burned this particular flag on private property. He should have been left alone.

    1. C.S.P.

      Exactly who was harmed that you want armed thugs to engage with this man and cite him for violating some regulations? Was there any indication that he was reckless in his conduct? I will be blunt. That is a cocksucker approach of statists. Resist your urge to punish him in a roundabout.

      I can tell from your last 2 sentences that you are struggling with your distaste. I get it but I suggest you do not succumb to it. It’s like a youtube video I saw where a cop stops an open carry guy because he was walking in the wrong direction. This was done explicitly and solely to gain the man’s identity after he had refused to ID himself.

    2. It doesn’t strike me as very libertarian to go after people for petty bullshit like “having a fire without a permit”, especially since it’s clearly just to fuck them over for burning a flag. It’s pretty unlikely that a huge fire would have started because of this. It’s exactly the sort of petty authoritarianism that we shouldn’t allow because it just gives the government more and more reasons to harass people.

      Which would place the flag burners on a social level with the KKK …. where they belong.

      Penn and Teller belong on a social level with the KKK? There are many different reasons to burn flags.

  37. While I agree that arresting him for flag burning was wrong, he should have been arrested for wearing whatever the fuck that is on his head.

  38. Perhaps he would be happier in another country.

  39. “, who self-identifies as “part of the queer community,” I’m guessing he’s more part of the social justice far left community.

  40. We should give respect to our country and flag. Hipstore There might be many reasons for you and you may have gone through many difficulties but, you should show respect to your country.Hipstore ios

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