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Too many people either don't know or don't care about people's rights to express themselves as they see fit.

The Urbana police should have known better.

Because they didn't, Bryton Mellott is $15,000 richer. It's the best and easiest money he'll ever make.

Mellott's lawyers did even better, collecting $20,000 for work they did in a legal case that was impossible to lose.

For those who don't recall — or are trying to forget — Mellott caused a ruckus on July 4, 2016.

To express his disgust and disdain for his country, he posted on Facebook a picture of himself burning the American flag. It generated an angry response, creating concerns about both his personal safety and the safety of fellow employees and customers at his workplace.

To make a long story short, Urbana police officers, relying on an inarguably unconstitutional statute, unlawfully arrested Mellott and detained him for five hours on charges of flag burning.

There's a lesson here, one that cuts both ways in the incessant battle between those on the political left and right.

It's all about an individual's right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

People are free to disagree with Mellott's viewpoint, particularly the manner in which he expressed it. But that's as far as it goes.

Mellott has and had an absolute right to symbolically express whatever viewpoint he wishes by burning the flag. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that expression of free-speech rights in a 1989 decision.

Free speech, particularly on college campuses, is getting a lot of attention these days, mostly because many people not only don't understand the concept but sharply disagree with it.

So-called Antifa members, in fact, think it's their duty to physically assault those who express views they do not share. Faces covered with masks and sometimes armed with clubs, they attack those they view as fascists in communities across the country.

The First Amendment exists to protect individuals who utter unpopular speech, characterized by some these days as "hate speech."

Those who utter non-controversial speech don't need protection — it's the speech of those who dissent from the majority that needs protection.

But it's of a piece with the long-held view of many Americans — free speech for me, but not for thee.

Everyone is entitled to have their say. Everyone is not required to listen to someone having their say, and they're certainly free to disagree.

Mellott said he posted the picture of the burning flag "to address the issue of violence brought against members of my queer community and against every community considered to be 'other.'"

It was not exactly a well-thought-out protest against violence. But those who exercise their free-speech rights — like those who oppose others' free-speech rights — often emphasize blind emotion, rather than clarity of purpose, in their demonstrations.

That's their privilege in this country. Those who disagree, whatever their political perspective, need to remember that and pay the appropriate respect to a venerated American tradition.

— East Oregonian

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