“We are going to report you, Mr. Graf,” a group of teenagers exclaimed as they entered our grocery store. They went on to explain, “You have a Communist flag out front!"
The year was 1976. In a flurry of patriotism, my Dad had purchased a “Bennington” style US flag. The kids didn’t recognize it and jumped to some pretty deep conclusions.
“Let me give you a little history lesson,” Dad answered as he pulled out a small chart detailing American flags through history. He went on to show them a progression of flags until they came to the “Spirit of 76” or “Bennington” flag. “Hey!” one of the boys interjected. “That’s your Commie flag!”
Dad smiled before taking a deep breath to explain that the flag was a representation of one passed down through President Millard Fillmore's family. Oral history suggested it had been carried at the Battle of Bennington during the Revolutionary War (Note: Since the time of the Bicentennial, this flag has been regarded as most likely dating to the Centennial Celebration of the United States in 1876).
Dejected that they hadn’t uncovered a Communist sympathizer, the group of boys left the store, perhaps just a bit more knowledgeable than when they entered.
WAS HE BREAKING THE LAW?
Then, as now, there is a whole lot of confusion about “proper” or “legal” respect of the flag. Most recently, the struggle came to light when business giant Nike pulled a pair of sneakers from its lineup that were decorated with the original US 13-star flag. Many said that the shoes promoted a flag tied to racism. Well, that’s a whole other argument. The first reaction — on the part of Nike, its designers, and that of the public — should have been, “Does using the flag to sell items violate any codes or law?”
You see, the United States does have a Flag Code that puts forth proper flag protocol. Back in 1976 after those boys confronted my Dad, I took the time to search for the rules governing our flag. It wasn’t as easy as “Googling” back then. My path took me to the public library and finally, the local American Legion post before I discovered the U.S. Flag Code.
Current events, however, got me thinking about the whole flag protocol issue again. Today, research can be much easier as I can “let my fingers do the walking” to search for answers via the internet.
So, within a few moments of “research,” I discovered a few interesting tidbits. First of all, many nations appear to have a flag protocol that defines the proper placement, handling, use, and disposal of flags. Some countries have added certain protocols into their legal system while others prefer to have "guidelines" without civil or criminal consequences attached.
For example, the flag of India has a very distinctive protocol that is governed by the Flag Code of India, 2002; the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950; and the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971. In India, insults to the national flag are punishable by law with imprisonment up to three years, or a fine, or both.
The United Kingdom’s Department for Communities and Local Government released the Plain English guide to flying flagsfor England in November 2012. It purports to be a "summary of the new, more liberalized, controls over flag flying…”
In Uruguay, national flags cannot be adulterated in any way, nor be used with other intention than as national symbols as stated by law. Each year, every Uruguayan citizen must publicly pledge an oath of loyalty to the flag.
And back here in the United States, we do an official flag protocol defined in the US Code. If you didn’t know, the United States Code is the official compilation of the Federal laws of a general and permanent nature that are currently in force. In accordance with section 285b of title 2 of the U.S. Code, the Code is compiled by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the United States House of Representatives. The Code is divided into 50 titles by subject matter. Title (or "chapter") 4, “Flag and Seal, Seat of Government, and the States,” sets for the code for the US. Flag.
It is crucial to understand, however, that the code is the guidefor all handling and display of the flag. It does not impose penalties for misuse of the United States flag. That is left to the states (and to the federal government for the District of Columbia). Each state has its own flag law.
And while the Code does empower 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 that would be legally binding on civilians or civilian groups. Consequently, different interpretations of various provisions of the Code may continue to be made.
That leaves the Code rather open for interpretation with no real consequences for violation — except the ire of ol’ timers, Patriots, and magazine editors!
SO WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT RESPECT?
Respect for the flag is defined in § (section) 8 of Title 4 of the Code. It reads:
"No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, Stateflags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor."
It goes on to provide 11 specific examples of what would be considered "disrespectful" and violate the Code:
(a) The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.
(b) The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
(c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.
(e) The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.
(f) The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.
(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.
(h) The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.
(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.
(k) The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.
While the code is very specific in defining what constitutes proper flag respect, remember, it does not impart any penalty for violation. That is left to individual states (and the federal government in the case of the District of Columbia) to decide.
SO WHAT ABOUT DAD'S FLAG?
All of this began with my memories of Dad's "Bennington" Flag that he so proudly displayed outside of his grocery store. His intention -- just like all of those pictured above -- was sincere and devoid of any conscious disrespect.
The Code does not specifically address historic U.S. flags. So to answer whether an historic flag may be displayed in place of the current, 50-star flag, I had to dig deeper.
According to President Dwight Eisenhower's Executive Order (#10834, published August 25, 1959) the 50-Star flag would become the "official flag of the United States on July 4, 1960." Earlier, the White House had issued the following statement to the public: "By law, the new 50-star flag will become the official flag of the United States on July 4, 1960, the birthday of the Union... it would become improper to display the 48-star and the 49-star flag after that date." (21 August 1959)
The answer seems to be that only 50-star flags are "official" but it is might be appropriate to display earlier examples. In fact, a publication sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America gave some guidance: "Historic U.S. flags are due the same honor and respect that are given today's colors. When a historic flag is carried or displayed with a present-day flag, the modern flag takes precedence."
And with that, the lesson of this blog should come through --- proper respect of the flag should be governed by common sense. If in doubt, consult the US Code. Remember, though, there are no federal penalties for violating any of the code. Perhaps, that is the point:
Freedom is just that -- freedom to express one's self however they see fit -- even if it ticks off an ol' timer like me.
Preserve the Memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine