Police Who Can’t Arrest Bryton Mellott Arrest Bryton Mellott
July 6, 2016 (Fault Lines) — When news first broke of Bryton Mellott being arrested for posting to Facebook an image of himself burning an American flag, the ultimate outcome was a forgone conclusion. That didn’t stop people on the internet from engaging in pointless debate, however:
An Illinois man was arrested after he set the American flag on fire and posted photos of the act on Facebook. But the incident has sparked a debate on social media about whether the act should be considered an expression of free speech.
According to The News-Gazette, Bryton Mellott, 22, posted several photos on Facebook on July 3 showing him burning the American flag. On the photo post, he included a statement about why he is “not proud” to be an American.
The reason the outcome should’ve been no surprise to anyone is because the Supreme Court of the United States decided Texas v. Johnson in 1989, holding that a conviction for flag burning was inconsistent with the First Amendment. It’s a case that I’d hope most people learn about in grade school.
Mellott’s actions were undoubtedly expressive conduct. The image of him holding the burning flag with flowers in his hair was accompanied with a rant about how he wasn’t proud of his country. It isn’t like he was endangering anyone. It isn’t like he was arrested under a law that wasn’t previously held unconstitutional. He was sending an obvious message. The content of that message was his dissatisfaction with his country, something he expressed dramatically through his actions by burning a flag.
It’s pretty amazing that some kid doing the same thing someone else did decades ago and which the Supreme Court said couldn’t constitutionally be prohibited in 1989 would spark a present day debate on social media, but it’s unfortunately just a sad sign of the times. Many people are probably ignorant that what he was doing is protected. They’re coming at it from the position of genuinely believing they’re the first people to ever think deep thoughts about free speech. It isn’t the first time someone failed to realize what came before them.
Others might be even sadder examples of modern thinking, people who are aware of what the Supreme Court said and that it’s well-settled law, but who still think their musings about why the highest court in the country was wrong have sufficient value to merit sharing them with the world. Many of those types may be preparing petitions right now to have legislators pass a law fixing that rogue Supreme Court ruling. There’s no shortage of ignorance, or gumption, when it comes to folks who aren’t fond of being prevented from controlling others’ behavior the way they want.
It’s perhaps more amazing that cops would arrest Mellott, though it becomes clearer why as you dive a little deeper into the facts:
Urbana Sgt. Andrew Charles told The News-Gazette that his department started receiving calls about the Facebook photos. Charles looked at the post, and said he saw many people making violent threats directed at Mellott and his place of employment, Walmart.
Urbana police released a statement on Monday that 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.”
Never underestimate just how many tattletales there are in this country. If you think that people at some point grow out of snitching every time little Susie, or in this case little Mellott, does something that offends their delicate, civilized state of mind, think again.
The playground telltales grow up to be your neighborhood busybodies. They quit squealing to the teacher and instead squeal to the police. There are more of these people than you could ever imagine, and they’re such fragile little snowflakes that someone like Mellott upsetting their sense of decency compels them to go blabbering to the nearest authority figure they can find.
Given their sheer number and the fact the squeaky wheel really does get the grease, police acted and, as is usually the case, did so in a manner that exhibits their own self-righteousness. There’s truly no limit to the dangers cops will invent to justify questionable arrests. For proof of that, consider the reasoning that they offered for arresting a kid who did something that was undoubtedly protected by the constitution. It wasn’t just for Mellott’s own safety, the typical cop justification, but for the safety of innocent Wal-Mart shoppers who might be harmed by someone trying to carry out a threat against Mellott at his place of employment. Who wants innocent consumers who don’t burn flags to get hurt?
The arrest becomes even more understandable in light of this:
Charles told The News-Gazette that he spoke with Mellott and with Walmart about the pictures. The police said they told Mellott that they “understood his freedom of speech,” but they said they believed his posts were putting his safety at risk as well as the safety of others.
According to police, Mellott continued to post similar photos to Facebook, so police arrested him under the state’s flag desecration law.
Enough public outcry tends to get cops to do something fairly often. A good argument police action will protect someone, even if it’s the person they’re arresting, makes action even more likely. At the extreme end, cops telling someone to knock something off and being ignored all but guarantees arrest. Why would Mellott not listen to them? Does he not respect their authority? Can’t he see they’re just trying to protect him?
Amazingly, the unconstitutional arrest came following a consultation with lawyers:
Police said they made the decision to arrest him after consulting with the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s office and weighing his free speech rights against concerns of public safety.
It always feels like a sick joke when government officials talk about weighing rights against safety. What they’re really doing is considering whether the inconvenient liberties of a person like Mellott, something that exists only at their whim, have any possibility of later coming back to bite them in the ass should they go ahead and do what they really want to do.
The fact that the make-believe danger to the public posed by Mellott exercising his right to free speech was enough to lead cops to arrest him after being weighed against established Supreme Court case law from almost thirty years ago invalidating the very law under which they arrested him tells you just how much cops care about rights. Folks at the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s Office seem to be of pretty much the same opinion.
But of course, Mellott won’t be charged:
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.”
No matter how much people on the internet might be up at arms about flag burning being protected, this result was bound to happen. It wasn’t really that complex, and any threat to innocent and uninvolved citizens only existed in the creative minds of authorities who had to do something to placate the crowd. Either the cops have never actually been online and realized that every idiot spews death threats at the first sign of disagreement, or they’re assuming we’re all too stupid to see past what they’re doing.
This quote, which I believe comes from Butler Schaeffer, pretty much sums up Mellott’s situation:
The Constitution is that sacred document which prevents the government from doing all the terrible things it does.
Mellott was doing something perfectly lawful. Authorities were wrong. That didn’t make him even the slightest bit less arrested, however.