An Illinois man was arrested for desecrating an American flag after he posted pictures on Facebook during the Fourth of July weekend.
In one post, which features him holding a burning flag, Bryton Mellott writes the caption: “#youbetterburnthatflag.” In another, now-deleted post, he wrote: “I am not proud to be an American” and “#ArrestMe.”
The Urbana Police Department issued a statement about his arrest on July 4. “The images and narrative in the post caused some to call and request police action against Mellott and others to call and express concern for the safety of Mellott and those around him,” the department stated.
“Many threatened violence against Mellott and his place of employment, which fielded a large volume of calls regarding this post,” the Urbana Police Department said.
On July 4, Mellott wrote on Facebook, “So it’d be super-duper if the death threats could stop.”
Mellott’s flag-burning picture was screen-capped and then shared across far-flung corners of the internet, including 4chan’s notorious “/pol/ politics” board. On the website, anonymous users suggested they would attempt to uncover more details about Mellott. “Is he a burger? I thought you guys loved the flag?” one person wrote. “Burger” is an online slang for an American in 4chan lingo.
The News-Gazette, a local publication, posted images of Mellott’s mugshot.
Other websites, including ilgunrights.com, uncovered details about Mellott and his employer, Walmart, describing him as a “flag-burning social justice warrior.” It shared a screenshot of a Facebook post from Mellott that made references to killing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. “Kill him dead because I’m done playing,” it read, as he shared an article about a U.K. man who was accused of plotting to kill Trump in Las Vegas.
Mellott was arrested under an Illinois state statute concerning flag desecration, the police department said. He was also charged with disorderly conduct.
Police later released him from custody and gave him a notice to appear in court. His release was due to “questions over the constitutionality of the 2013 Illinois flag desecration law,” the department said.
Mellott’s arrest is a case where the right to free speech might conflict with the safety of uninvolved people, police said, adding that its actions were taken to “assure the safety of the public” and Mellott.
Flag burning constitutes “symbolic speech” and is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to a 1989 court ruling.
In 1984, Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag outside a the convention center where the 1984 Republican National Convention was being held in Dallas. He burned the flag to protest policies of then-President Ronald Reagan before he was arrested and charged with violating a Texas state statute that prevented the desecration of the American flag.
Johnson appealed the decision, arguing that his actions were “symbolic speech.” The Supreme Court agreed to hear his case and determined that he had the right to do so.