By Timothy Mclaughlin
CHICAGO (Reuters) – An Illinois man is suing members of a local police department alleging his rights were violated when he was arrested last year after he posted photos of himself burning an American flag on social media and they were shared widely, according to court documents.
Bryton Mellott, 22, of Urbana, Illinois, a city around 140 miles (225 km) south of Chicago, set an American flag on fire on July 3 in a friend’s backyard to protest the conditions of many Americans’ lives. He then posted photos to Facebook along with an explanation of his actions, according to court documents filed on Wednesday.
Many states, including Illinois, continue to have flag desecration laws on the books, though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that burning of the flag is protected as an expression of free speech.
The Urbana Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Mellott’s lawsuit alleges that four Urbana police officers violated his right to free speech and detained him without reason. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Mellott. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois.
“I am 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 basis,” Mellott wrote last year in the caption accompanying his photos, according to court documents.
He ended his post, “#ArrestMe.”
By the following morning, the post had been shared widely and attracted numerous comments. An officer from the Urbana Police Department called Mellott and told him to take the post down, according to court documents. Mellott declined to do so, saying it had already been shared many times.
Later in the day, Mellott was arrested by Urbana officers for violating the state’s flag desecration statue. He was detained for around five hours.
However, Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz declined to charge Mellott, citing the Supreme Court rulings, and Mellott was released.
President-elect Donald Trump briefly waded into the debate over flag burning last year, when he said in a message on Twitter that there “must be consequences” for burning the flag. He suggested those who do so face loss of citizenship or jail time.
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)