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Man sues city of Williamsport over flag burning, First Amendment rights

Gene Stilp/ social media

A man who tried to burn a Donald Trump flag outside of the Lycoming County Courthouse July 23, 2020, has sued the city of Williamsport in U.S. Middle District Court.

Gene Stilp is challenging the city’s open burning ordinance as unconstitutional and said his right to publicly burn political flags is a form of political protest.

Stilp, a political activist has burned such flags in various locations as a means of protesting politicians and political ideologies he opposes.

Stilp said he intended to burn three flags: a former president campaign flag sewn together with a Nazi flag; a Trump campaign flag sewn with a flag of the former Soviet Union and a Trump campaign flag sewn with a Confederate flag.

As Stilp prepared to burn the flags in a metal trash can he brought a law enforcement officer with the city warned him the fire would be extinguished the minute it would be set.

Stilp ignited the flag and the officer used a fire hose that filled the can with water.

Stilp was informed he was under arrest and ordered to sit while the officer collected his personal information.

The officer confiscated the can, lighter and flags.

The city ordinance regarding outdoor burning regulates it to recreational fire.

Stilp argued the ordinance arbitrarily distinguishes between fires for pleasure, ceremonial and religious while prohibiting fires for the purpose of political demonstration.

He claimed it is a violation of his First Amendment right to free expression and the city burn ordinance is void for vagueness under the 14th Amendment. He also claimed unconstitutional suppression under the first and 14th amendments to the constitution.

Stilp is asking the court to enter a judgment in his favor with nominal and compensatory damages and award attorneys fees.

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