Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 5/24/2015.
A few years ago, someone gave me a tie as a present. The tie was covered with small United States flags. Feeling particularly patriotic one day, I wore it to work. In the elevator, someone looked at me and said, “You know that’s not allowed, right?” He went on to explain that the law states the flag is not to be used on clothing. I looked up the law, and he was correct.
Some people have very strong opinions about the use of the flag in various situations, and spirited debates often arise as to what’s “proper.” There are indeed laws (known as the Flag Code) about how and when to display the flag. There are also executive orders that lay out specifics on flag display. These laws are generally considered “advisory” and don’t prescribe punishment for violating them. But I’ve always thought every American should be proud of the flag, display it with honor, protect it from harm and even destroy it with dignity when it becomes soiled or tattered. In a nutshell, the Flag Code simply states, “No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America.”
The Congressional Research Service put together a report for Congress a few years ago, summarizing flag usage. There is a lot of good information there, about everything from the rules below to the national anthem. Here are a few of the main points of flag display, from the Flag Code and other sources:
- The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water or merchandise.
- The flag should never be used as wearing apparel (such as my tie), bedding or drapery.
- It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.
- No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. (um, Rocky?)
- The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying or delivering anything. (No paper cups or bowls.)
- The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
- The flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides or back of a vehicle or of a train or a boat.
- The flag should be flown sunrise to sunset but can be flown at night if properly illuminated. (There are a few places where the flag is authorized to be flown around the clock, such as at the Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, the Iwo Jima Memorial and others.)
- The flag shouldn’t be flown in inclement weather, except “allweather” flags.
- The flag is not to be used in advertising.
- The flag is not “dipped” to anyone or anything and should always be placed above flags of states and organizations. (There is one exception. During church services conducted by naval chaplains at sea, the church pennant may be flown above the U.S. flag.)
- When flown with flags of other nations (such asat the United Nations), the flags should be of equal size and flown at the same height.
- When the flag is torn, tattered, stained or frayed, it should be “retired” with dignity, preferably by burning. (Burning of flags in protest is a hot-button issue for many — me included — but this is referring just to retiring old flags, not protests.) If you have an old flag that needs retiring, seek out a local Scout unit or American Legion post.
Ultimately, the flag is ours. It’s our responsibility to protect it and — by honoring it — to show respect to those who have died for the country it represents.