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    Man Freed After Flag Desecration

    Man Freed After Flag Desecration

    TAMPA - The First Amendment gives people the freedom to desecrate the American flag.

    That's why the state attorney's office decided to drop charges Thursday against a Tampa man police say stomped on the flag this week. The archaic Florida law holding him was unconstitutional, officials said.

    The decision also has led Tampa police to advise officers to no longer charge people with violating Florida's flag desecration law, a police department spokeswoman said.

    Tampa police arrested Donnie James White on Monday on a charge of public mutilation of a U.S. flag after several witnesses said they saw him dragging a flag behind his bicycle. White, a 45-year-old Tampa man, was released from Orient Road Jail on Thursday morning.

    Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi said the flag desecration law hit Florida's books in 1919 and was updated as recently as the 1970s.

    "The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that this type of statute is unconstitutional," Bondi said. "This defendant's conduct is protected under the First Amendment."

    According to arrest reports, White got off his bicycle and stomped on the flag numerous times. When police confronted White at 3611 W. Hillsborough Ave., he rubbed himself with the flag, threw it on the ground, stomped on it and sat on it, the report said.

    Bondi said her office started examining the charge Wednesday after reading a Tampa Tribune article. The decision was made to drop the charge within 24 hours.

    In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. Johnson that a Texas law forbidding flag desecration violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

    But according to Florida law, anyone who mutilates, defaces, tramples on or burns a U.S. or Florida flag with the goal of insulting it, its standards or colors is guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor. A first-degree misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

    19 People Arrested Under Law

    A spokesman from the secretary of state's office said the only way to remove unconstitutional language from Florida statutes is through the legislative process.

    Over the years, 19 people have been arrested in Florida under the main statute. One man was arrested in Tampa twice last year for burning a flag.

    Hernando County firefighter Pete Paolillo said he was one of several witnesses who saw White threatening to defecate on the flag Monday in Tampa. He was upset but not surprised after learning of White's release from jail.

    "It seems like everyone takes freedom of speech for granted," said Paolillo, who claimed he tried to wrestle the flag from White. "I don't think that when our forefathers were coming up with the Constitution they thought people would be using freedom of speech to desecrate the United States flag."

    Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the arresting officer was not aware of the Supreme Court's decision.

    The state attorney's office contacted Tampa police Thursday to let them know the law was archaic and the statute was unconstitutional, Bondi said.

    Tampa police will post a bulletin advising officers to no longer use the statute to arrest people, McElroy said, but White potentially could have been arrested Monday on a different charge, such as disorderly conduct.

    "The officers had seen him up and down the street for about a week and had warned him to stop dragging the flag down the street with his bike," she said. "He wasn't arrested until after a complaint came in from a business that was very upset that Mr. White was yelling and was acting out."

    Erratic Behavior Seen In The Past

    Prior to White's release, he was held at Orient Road Jail with bail set at $500. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

    Witnesses told a reporter that White often has displayed eccentric and erratic behavior, including wearing a Superman costume. An arrest report shows he has a swastika tattoo on his left arm.

    The police department's next move will be to contact the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and ask that White's arrest record on this case be expunged from public records, McElroy said.

    "The fabric of the Constitution is being stepped on just like that flag was," Paolillo said. "And I think it's pretty sad."

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    If this is considerd free speech, then me beating the hell out of them should too.



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