Police analyzing threats to flag burner

 

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1 p.m. Tuesday

In a release, the Urbana Police Department says it respects that Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz will not charge Urbana's Bryton Mellott in Monday's flag-burning incident.

"Laws dealing with questions of Constitutional rights are extremely complex," the release said. "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."

 

12:15 p.m. Tuesday

Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz said today that the man arrested on July 4 after a flag-burning Facebook post will not be charged.

"The State's Attorney's Office is declining to file charges against (Bryton) Mellott as the act of burning a flag is protected free speech according to the US Supreme Court decision, Texas v. Johnson, 491 US 397 (1989)," Rietz said in a statement.

"We have considered 720 ILCS 5/49-1, Flag Desecration, an Illinois statute currently in effect," the statement reads. "This statute was the basis for the decision by Urbana Police officers to arrest Mellott. While that statute remains in effect, it is contradictory to the US Supreme Court ruling in Texas v. Johnson.  We will be discussing this issue with our local legislators and asking that they consider reviewing this statute given the constitutional issues it presents."

 

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URBANA — Within hours of a Fourth of July Facebook post showing him burning an American flag, a 22-year-old Urbana man found himself under arrest and under fire — from all corners of the Internet.

By Monday night, Bryton Mellott’s booking mug and the text of his posting — which began with "I am not proud to be an American" and closed with "#ArrestMe" — had been seen by thousands and commented on by hundreds of people on social media.

Dozens of websites shared the details of the posting, from mainstream ones like Forbes.com to others, like ilgunrights.com, that ridiculed the Wal-Mart employee.

It was when some of the most threatening comments started mentioning Mellott’s employer that authorities say they decided to take action.

People are free to make inflammatory comments that put themselves at risk, Urbana Sgt. Andrew Charles said Monday, but when they put others at risk who have no say, it becomes a law enforcement matter.

The threatening tone of much of the feedback online — which Urbana police first learned about after getting multiple calls as early as 7 a.m. Monday — is what led them to arrest Mellott under an Illinois state statute concerning flag desecration, Charles told The News-Gazette.

Later Monday in a statement, Urbana police said "the volume of responses and specificity of threat against his place of employment (a location where an act of violence would likely cause harm to others), prompted police involvement in this case."

The statement went on to say that "Urbana Police urge the public to express themselves in a peaceful way and to not retaliate against unpopular speech."

The police report listed Mellott as an offender of both flag desecration and disorderly conduct, as well as a victim of disorderly conduct.

Following his arrest, Urbana police consulted with the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s office, after which Mellott was released from custody and given a notice to appear in court.

Late Monday afternoon, State’s Attorney Julia Reitz said she had not yet received any official report on the incident, other than what she’d seen on social media.

She said flag desecration laws have been found unconstitutional, but her office would review police reports when they arrived.

Before arresting him, Charles said police spoke with Mellott and his employer. He said Mellott was told police "understood his freedom of speech" but were concerned for his safety and believed his posts were putting others at risk.

Following their conversation, Mellott continued similar posts to Facebook, Charles said, so police arrested him.

"We are trying to ensure his safety as much as we can and (Wal-Mart’s) business, too," Charles said.

The photo that sparked the outrage early Monday was accompanied by a three-paragraph posting. It read: "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.

"I would like to one day feel a sense of pride toward my nationality again. But too little progress has been made. Too many people still suffer at the hands of politicians influenced by special interests. Too many people are still being killed and brutalized by a police force plagued with authority complexes and racism. Too many people are allowed to be slaughtered for the sake of gun manufacturer profits. Too many Americans hold hate in their hearts in the name of their religion, and for fear of others. And that’s only to speak of domestic issues.

"I do not have pride in my country. I am overwhelmingly ashamed, and I will demonstrate my feelings accordingly. #ArrestMe."

Attempts to reach Mellott on Monday were unsuccessful.