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Appeals court overturns Missouri flag burning law

May 30, 2014

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A federal appeals court has overturned a Missouri law that makes it a crime to burn or otherwise desecrate the American flag, citing Constitutional free-speech protections.

Frank Snider III of Cape Girardeau sued the southeast Missouri city after his 2009 arrest for cutting up a U.S. flag outside his home and trying to set it on fire. When the flag failed to ignite, he shredded it with a knife and threw it in the street. When an angry neighbor called police, Snider told an officer he “hated the United States” and blamed the country for his inability to find a job.

Snider was jailed for eight hours, but local prosecutors dismissed the charges after learning of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling 20 years earlier that deemed a similar law in Texas unconstitutional.

The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a 2012 lower court ruling that the law violated the First Amendment’s right to free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri represented the Cape Girardeau man.

The appellate court opinion noted that “this country has a long history of protecting expressive conduct on First Amendment grounds, especially when the American flag is the mode of expression.”

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster had appealed the U.S. District Court ruling. Koster spokesman Eric Slusher said Friday that state prosecutors are reviewing the ruling. He declined to indicate whether the state planned to further appeal. Officials with Koster’s office had previously defended the Missouri law by citing state residents’ “patriotic sentiment” against damage to the flag.

The appellate ruling also upheld the 2012 award of $7,000 in damages to Snider as well as an order for the state and Cape Girardeau police officer Matthew Peters — who initially charged Snider with littering — to pay $62,000 in legal fees.

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