Wave of emotion

Wave of emotion

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URBANA — Bryton Mellott's story gained national attention, making headlines with media outlets such as CNN and Forbes. And a Facebook posting on his page that includes a photo of the 22-year-old standing and holding a burning American flag with the caption #youbetterburnthatflag has been shared more than 14,000 times on the social-media site.

And though Mellott was arrested Monday by Urbana police, Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz announced Tuesday that he would not be charged with a crime.

"In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. Johnson that the act of burning a flag is protected free speech. It has been the law of the land since that time," Rietz told The News-Gazette on Tuesday.

Varying dissenting opinions flooded social media, decrying Rietz's ruling with many of them erroneously citing Illinois Statute 720 ILCS 5/49-1, Flag Desecration, as a reason Mellott should be charged.

"That statute has never been tested, but I am certain that if it were to be, that based on the clear finding in the U.S. Supreme Court case that it would be found to be unconstitutional," Rietz said.

Whether he committed a crime or not, Mellott's actions sparked plenty of debate and opinions locally Tuesday. Before the decision was made not to charge him with a crime, Mellott was originally scheduled to appear in court Tuesday afternoon. A Facebook group had planned a peaceful pro-flag protest outside of the Champaign County Courthouse. It didn't materialize the way they had planned.

Ben Smith of Ogden, his wife, Krystle, and their young sons, ages 3 and 1, attended the rally. They accounted for about half of the crowd.

"Very disappointed in the turnout," said Ben Smith, who carried a large American flag, while the other three members of his family each carried smaller versions. "We have people that are so inundated with their lives they cannot take an hour, take their lunch break, tell their co-workers 'Hey, listen, part of our nation was under attack' and that's how I see it."

Smith said that a member of his family has fought in every war involving the United States since the American Revolution and when he saw Mellott's postings during the holiday weekend, he was infuriated.

"You attacked our flag; you attacked our nation. You attacked what I stood for; you attacked what my dad fought for; you attacked what my grandfathers fought for; you attacked what my great-grandparents fought for. You literally attacked me. You told me what they did means nothing to you," Smith said. "We need to get back to our roots. We have turned our backs on America. That's why I've got my boys out here with me. They were going to see what true patriotism looks like."

At Champaign's American Legion Post 24, Rudiger Laufhutte takes pride in honorably disposing of American flags no longer fit for display. The veteran of the Army has a 55-gallon drum of unfit flags waiting for a proper disposal ceremony. There's a drop box in the back of the building where people can place their worn-out flag for the Legion to properly discard. Laufhutte especially likes the flags that folks fold into triangles as an extra sign of respect.

"The tradition of our flag goes back to 1776. Many people have suffered for this flag; many people have given their lives for this flag, and therefore we do not like desecration of the flag," Laufhutte said.

Laufhutte, a veteran of the Army, was born in Germany and came to the United States with some members of the U.S. Air Force he befriended in Germany at the age of 20.

"As an adopted citizen, I really love this flag," he said. "This country has done great things for me; among other things it put the spook of Nazi Germany to rest."

The flag being burned so close to the July 4th holiday especially infuriated Laufhutte, who said the American Legion has joined forces with a group called Citizens Flag Alliance to fight the Supreme Court decision of 1989.

"To desecrate the flag on July 4th of all (days) in my mind is a completely despicable act," he said. "I consider this kid in Urbana a (expletive) wuss, who is spoiled rotten and uses the freedom that people died for and basically spit in their faces."

Mellott, an employee of Wal-Mart, was arrested on Monday as an offender of flag desecration and disorderly conduct. Some questioned whether he should have been arrested in the first place, given the fact that the 1989 Supreme Court ruling protected his speech.

The police said Monday that Mellott was arrested in part to protect him and innocent civilians at Wal-Mart, where he was working at the time the threats were pouring in, from those threatening to retaliate after Mellott refused to remove his Facebook posts.

"In general, although you don't have a right to threaten other people or create a danger, you don't have to go out of your way to protect other people. He has a First Amendment right to do whatever he wants. So the government, generally speaking, can't punish you for not making their job easy," said Vikram Amar, the dean of the University of Illinois College of Law. "I think nice, responsible people would comply. If the police tell you don't go to a bad part of town at night because you're likely to get mugged, they can't prevent you from going there unless there's some going that says someone isn't allowed after dark."

"I'm very disappointed in the police department for arresting him, though. They're claiming it was for his own protection, but I'm not sure how arresting somebody and publicizing his address serves to protect him," said Stephanie Skora, a local activist.

The decision to arrest was made by the police department before consulting with the state's attorney's office.

"I believe that the Urbana police officers were trying to make the best decision they could make given the circumstances out of concern for public safety and Mr. Mellott's safety in light of the comments being made on social media," Rietz said. "I would have preferred that they had called to discuss this matter before they made the decision to arrest him, but they didn't."

Mellott could have civil remedies against the city of Urbana for his arrest, Rietz said, though she has no knowledge of any plans he had to take that stance.

Ed Yohnka, the communications director at Illinois' American Civil Liberties Union, confirmed that the organization reached out to Mellott on Tuesday, but would not confirm whether contact was made and any steps that might take place.

"If it happened to me, I would certainly look into doing that because he was arrested unlawfully and he's been the target of a lot of harassment and violence as a result of the information that the police publicized, so I would look into some measures," Skora said.

As for those making threats online, Rietz said that situation is tricky, though some could be opening themselves up for criminal charges.

"That's a bit more complicated because they also have the right to free speech and (Mellott) made himself a public figure by posting the video. If they are making threats directly to him, sending him direct messages, that can be a criminal offense — electronic harassment," she said. "Just making a blanket statement like 'He should leave the country,' that wouldn't be a criminal offense, but if they were to contact him directly and make a direct threat to him, that could be a criminal offense."

Skora said seeing some of the things being said to Mellott on the various platforms was disturbing.

"I think that people should really take a hard look at how they react to flag burning. If their response to somebody's act of speech is to threaten them with violence or to say they should be pressed into service in the military or thrown in jail, then maybe the folks who are saying those things should take a look at the way they're portraying themselves and portraying the country that they claim to love," Skora said. "I think folks should learn to really check their violence at the door when they're trying to be patriotic because I'm sure people who are angry about flag burning wouldn't like to see patriotism always associated with violence."

15 minutes of social-media fame

Bryton Mellott isn't the first person whose social-media account made national news. There was Salaitagate and ...

JANUARY 2014

"I hop(e) you slip on ice and break a hip," one student tweets about then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise after the University of Illinois holds classes on a frigid day. Most of the tweets share a hashtag: #(Expletive)Phyllis.

NOVEMBER 2014

Oakwood officials beef up security at the high school after threats are made in response to a student's regrettable tweets about violence in Ferguson, Mo. Among her tamer comments: "We don't start a riot when white ppl die."

MAY 2015

In a multi-tweet rant that a Chicago law firm was hired to investigate, former UI lineman Simon Cvijanovic claims he was mistreated by coaches. The alleged chief culprit, Tim Beckman, is fired in the fallout.

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worldgoesroundincircles wrote on July 06, 2016 at 8:07 am

""I'm very disappointed in the police department for arresting him, though. They're claiming it was for his own protection, but I'm not sure how arresting somebody and publicizing his address serves to protect him," said Stephanie Skora, a local activist."

 

Stephanie Skora - you don't have a clue. The police department did the right thing. This young man made a bad decision. Publicizing his address is part of the booking process. In todays world of social media it doesn't make him any more vunerable. If you're so concerned about that then maybe you should find a counselor to teach Mr. Mellot some social skills and good decision making. He obviously did this for attention. Just because the law says it's ok doesn't mean it's a smart sound decision. He knew what he was doing so he needs to understand the consequences of it. 

The Greeks protect their flag. I've seen first hand what happens when you mess with their flag. The bottom line is just because you can leagally burn the american flag doesn't make it a smart thing to do. It's our nations symbol. It represents our freedom. Why would you want to burn the very symbol that symbolizes your freedom? It also causes those who are patriotic emotional pain. Why would you do something that causes people pain? 

 

Where's common sense in all of this? What good came out of this act ? Nothing! The backlash he's going to suffer from his stupid act can't be worth what he did. He's getting the wrong kind of attention. Maybe he should find something else to do to get noticed - like doing some volunteer work.

CarlWinslow wrote on July 06, 2016 at 9:07 am

How is it that a local State's Attorney gets to decide the constitutionality of a law that is currently on the books? It very well may be that, if tested or disputed, the law would be found unconstitutional--but it has not yet been. She should be bound to enforce the existing laws until they are no longer on the books.

Regarding this imbecile, my opinion as a combat veteran is that he should be allowed to burn the flag if he so chooses. It's disturbing, and in bad taste--but it's free speech, and there's no accounting for taste. He should be arrested under current Illinois law, and would hopefully appeal with assistance from the ACLU or similar non-profit entities and get the law overturned--because it should not be illegal.

He should not be subject to illegal actions upon his person by anyone else--e.g bodily harm, death threats, etc. However, he should face all the legal negative attention that the internet and society can direct at him, because he was the idiot that chose to post this for the world to see. Actions have consequences, deal with them or don't take the action in the first place.

rsp wrote on July 06, 2016 at 10:07 am

This law and the one found to be unconstitutional are almost identical, word for word. The main differences are who gets the money from any fines. I think that's a pretty good clue that the current law wouldn't get far in any court.

CarlWinslow wrote on July 06, 2016 at 11:07 am

Then let it go to any court and not get far. At this point that has not happened, therefore it should be enforced until struck down.

SaintClarence27 wrote on July 06, 2016 at 12:07 pm

That's a smart use of county resources, right there.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on July 07, 2016 at 2:07 am
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No doubt.

I'm subscribing to Carl Winslow's newsletter. I'll bet he has a lot more advice to offer.

rsp wrote on July 06, 2016 at 7:07 pm

The SA has the authority to decide whether to prosecute a case or not. Not every case brought to her office is worthy of prosecution. Part of her job is to review them.

Mirielle wrote on July 06, 2016 at 9:07 am

This incident was on all of the major news channels.  It would be great if on June 14, Flag Day, all across America rallies would take place honoring our flag as it has never been done before. 

 

Pgnat wrote on July 06, 2016 at 12:07 pm

You know you are right we do need to do something on flag day.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on July 07, 2016 at 2:07 am
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I'd much rather see people celebrating Constitution Day.

 

The flag is useful for identifying ships at sea. The constitution (which a lot of people here seem to misunderstand, or outright disrespect) is our foundation.

 

I'd also be delighted if more people read the constitution.

Archer61821 wrote on July 06, 2016 at 10:07 am

Someone needs to explain the difference between "literally" and "figuratively" to Ben Smith.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on July 07, 2016 at 2:07 am
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Totally.

 

Among other things ...

jlc wrote on July 06, 2016 at 10:07 am

'Hey, listen, part of our nation was under attack'

I guess I don't understand how you can be invested in the flag as a symbol of our freedom, but not in our actual freedom. If you want the government to forbid people from exercising their right to free speech, then what does the flag stand for?

CU_townie_2_time_UI_grad wrote on July 06, 2016 at 12:07 pm

Don't attempt to use logic or sound reasoning; it won't lead to understanding here.  Every time I read the comments section on NG I wonder why I still live in this podunk backwards area of the country. I think burning the flag is stupid and attention seeking, but I believe in FREE SPEECH so.....

rsp wrote on July 06, 2016 at 7:07 pm

You should read comments from other parts of the country, sadly we're not that different...

Geonz wrote on July 06, 2016 at 3:07 pm

Indeed.   When questioning actions is deemed  "attack," then it's tyranny, not democracy.

Bulldogmojo wrote on July 06, 2016 at 11:07 am

 

"Decision not to charge flag-burner sparks many heated discussions"

A decision not to charge someone for an act of free speech that's NOT illegal?

How generous of Reitz UGH

CarlWinslow wrote on July 06, 2016 at 11:07 am

Go burn a rainbow flag on Mr. Mellott's front lawn and watch the SJW firestorm that erupts--it would make the hubbub he has caused pale in comparison.

BruckJr wrote on July 06, 2016 at 11:07 am

Local activist - what is that?  Does that status make her an expert on flag burning?  First amendment?  Not sure why she was quoted here?

loopillini wrote on July 06, 2016 at 2:07 pm

I think she feels her degree in gender and women's studies at the U of I makes her an expert on nearly everything...a Google perusal of her "activism" shows just who she feels matter...here is a post, directly quoted, about the terrorist attack is Orlando:  

And here comes the systematic Islamophobia from white media. I'll say it again: this shooting has NOTHING TO DO WITH ISLAM. Homophobia, toxic masculinity, and pure hatred killed those people in ‪#‎Orlando‬.

Were this a white man, like mass shooters usually are, the political statements of his father would not be delved into and dissected. Would not be presented in such a way, intended to make him look like a sympathizer with those that the West imagines to be terrorists. His every word would not be gone over with a fine-toothed comb to make him look like a certain kind of villain. To make these murders even better serve the purpose of the US Empire.

Islamophobia is hate. Homophobia is hate. Creating more hate only breeds more violence. Our communities cannot afford more violence. Please do not aid the media in perpetuating the Islamophobia that they desire so strongly to spread. Find community with your Muslim friends, with your queer and trans friends, and check in with your queer and trans Muslim friends. They need us most of all right now. ‪#‎HugsNotHate‬

 

Mirielle wrote on July 06, 2016 at 12:07 pm

Burning a Rainbow flag on Mellott's lawn would be hate speech...3

SaintClarence27 wrote on July 06, 2016 at 12:07 pm

Which is also protected, except if it's done on his lawn then it's potentially arson and criminal trespass to residence, where it would qualify as a hate crime.

wayward wrote on July 06, 2016 at 4:07 pm

You can burn whatever damn flag you want on your own lawn, but if you start burning stuff on other people's property without permission, you're going to get in a load of trouble.

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