Public concern and confusion regarding the proper respect shown to the United States flag has given rise to many questions on the law relating to the flag’s handling, display and use. Both the state governments and the federal government have enacted legislation on this subject.
On the national level, the federal flag code provides uniform guidelines for the display of and respect shown to the flag. In addition to the code, Congress has by statute designated the national anthem and set out the proper conduct during its presentation.
The code is designed “for the use of such civilian groups or organizations as may not be required to conform with regulations promulgated by one or more executive departments” of the federal government. Thus, the flag code does not prescribe any penalties for non-compliance nor does it include enforcement provisions; rather the code functions simply as a guide to be voluntarily followed by civilians and civilian groups.
The federal flag code does not purport to cover all possible situations. Although the code empowers the president of the United States to alter, modify, repeal, or prescribe additional rules regarding the flag, no federal agency has the authority to issue “official” rulings legally binding on civilians or civilian groups. Consequently, different interpretations of various provisions of the code may continue to be made.
The flag code itself, however, suggests a general rule by which practices involving the flag may be fairly tested: “No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America.” Therefore, actions not specifically included in the code may be deemed acceptable as long as proper respect is shown.
In addition to the flag code, a separate provision contained in the federal criminal code established criminal penalties for certain treatment of the flag. Prior to 1989, this provision provided criminal penalties for certain acts of desecration to the flag. In response to the Supreme Court decision in Texas v. Johnson (which held that anti-desecration statutes are unconstitutional if aimed at suppressing one type of expression), Congress enacted the Flag Protection Act of 1989 to provide criminal penalties for certain acts which violate the physical integrity of the flag. This law imposed a fine and/or up to one year in prison for knowingly mutilating, defacing, physically defiling, maintaining on the floor, or trampling upon any flag of the United States. In 1990, however, the Supreme Court held that the Flag Protection Act was unconstitutional as applied to a burning of the flag in a public protest.
The flag code, which formalizes and unifies the traditional ways in which we give respect to the flag, also contains specific instructions on how the flag is not to be used. They are:
• The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing. It is flown upside down only as a distress signal.
• The flag should not be used as a drapery, or for covering a speaker’s desk, draping a platform, or for any decoration in general. Bunting of blue, white and red stripes is available for these purposes. The blue stripe of the bunting should be on the top.
• The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use. Advertising signs should not be attached to the staff or halyard.
• The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, fireman, policeman and members of patriotic organizations.
• The flag should never have placed on it, or attached to it, any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind.
• The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
• When the flag is lowered, no part of it should touch the ground or any other object; it should be received by waiting hands and arms. To store the flag it should be folded neatly and ceremoniously.
• The flag should be cleaned and mended when necessary.
• When a flag is so worn (as in faded and or tattered) it is no longer fit to serve as a symbol of our country, it should be destroyed by burning in a dignified manner.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973. Wolford can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.