CHICAGO – A settlement has been reached in the matter of a 22-year-old Urbana resident, unlawfully arrested and jailed for burning an American flag over the July 4th weekend in 2016. The settlement follows a June ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Colin S. Bruce that burning a flag as a political protest is protected by the constitution, and that the Urbana police who arrested Bryton Mellott under the Illinois flag desecration statute should have known that fact when he was arrested. The Supreme Court of the United States found that flag desecration was protected speech in a 1989 case (Texas v. Johnson).
“"I burned an American flag to express my contempt for the image that has been constructed of America as a country above all others in being a torch bearer for equality,” Mr. Mellott said in reaction to the settlement. “It is not, and it has never been; but I hold onto hope that it could be. I recognize how immense of a privilege it has been to be represented by the ACLU and I am grateful for their work. I am also happy that the judge has found my actions to be protected under the First Amendment. While this is a fact the police department should have known already, I certainly hope that they have learned from their mistake."
Mr. Mellott decided in June of 2016 to burn the flag as a political protest. He purchased a flag, waited for a rainy day and found a location that was secluded. Shortly after 8:00 p.m. on July 3rd of 2016, Mr. Mellott went to the backyard of a friend’s home where he burned the flag while a friend took photographs. Mr. Mellott went inside and posted the pictures with a statement to Facebook.
The following morning, an Urbana police officer telephoned Mr. Mellott at work and asked if he had burned a flag and posted the picture. Surprised by the police’s interest, Mr. Mellott explained that he had burned the flag and posted the pictures in peaceful protest against a number of social ills.
The Urbana police officer asked Mr. Mellott to take down the post, which Mr. Mellott refused to do. The call ended and Mr. Mellott went back to work.
Approximately 30 minutes later, two Urbana police officers appeared at Mr. Mellott’s workplace, read him his rights and arrested him. He was escorted out of the retail establishment in handcuffs, in full view of his co-workers and customers. Mr. Mellott was taken to the Champaign County Jail and held for about 5 hours in a cell with 10 other persons. Police would later suggest that he was detained in order to ensure his own personal safety.
“There simply was no justification for Bryton to be arrested for his political statement,” said Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Illinois senior staff attorney. “We hope that other law enforcement agencies across Illinois will see this outcome and not subject anyone else to arrest and detention for burning a flag as part of a political protest.”
“We also call on the Illinois general assembly to repeal this outdated law.” added Glenberg.
As part of the settlement filed today, the defendants agreed to pay $15,000 to Mr. Mellott in damages and $20,000 for attorneys’ fees.
Mr. Mellott is represented by Rebecca Glenberg and Bharathi Pillai of the ACLU of Illinois and by Everett Cygal, Chris Nelson, and Kevin Whelan of the Chicago office of Schiff Hardin.