"Why is it so hard to fly the flag right?" a banker asked me the other day. This bank has a beautiful flagpole out front with no flag. The bank stopped flying the flag several years ago because of complaints every time something wasn’t right with the flag or its position. For the bank, it was easier to stop flying the flag than deal with upset town folks.
Her points were valid and as we talked more it was clear that confusion over the U.S. Flag Code was the culprit. Because of our conversation I’ve decided to address the question in a series of articles.
Someone not dedicated to Vexillology (the study of flags) would be hard pressed to say flying the flag is easy. In fact, there is even disagreement among vexillologists (people who study flags) about interpreting some points of the U.S. Flag Code. If the experts disagree, what chance does a banker, or anyone else, have to get it right?
Why should flying the U.S. flag be so hard?
As I talk to people about flying the U.S. flag properly, I find a lot of confusion. Half-staff days are one of the problems, to be sure. Some days the flag is at full-staff, others half-staff, and one day—both. That day is Memorial Day where the flag is flown at half-staff until noon, then raised to full-staff the rest of the day. No wonder people are confused.
It really shouldn’t be this difficult to fly the symbol of our Country without incurring the wrath of a zealot on a mission to beat people into submission, rather than educate.
Who’s to blame?
The U.S. Flag Code was made law by Congress December 22, 1942, codifying what President Roosevelt had signed in June of the same year. The code Congress signed into law was compiled in 1923 by the National Flag Conference, which met in Washington D.C. for that very purpose. This, in effect, federalized a consensus of flag laws derived from the laws of the states on U.S. flag etiquette.
Now the United States had an agreed upon method of flying the U.S. flag across the country and the confusion began. State laws regarding U.S. flag desecration were set aside for the new U.S. Flag Code, but unlike the state codes, there were no enforcement provisions. Under state laws, violators were prosecuted for acts of U.S. flag desecration, but under this new Flag Code, there was no enforcement or penalties for failure to comply. The new code did not require compliance, only voluntary co-operation.
When flag-burning as a form of protest was challenged legally, courts ruled that flag desecration was protected under the 1st Amendment as free speech, thus rendering Old Glory defenseless, without any real protection under the law. After the courts ruled that flag desecration was legal, it—in effect—gutted Section 8 of the U.S. Flag Code, "Respect for Flag."
September 11, 2001 changed the perception of flying the U.S. flag. Americans’ zeal to fly the flag pushed beyond the former boundaries of protocol, etiquette, and decorum. The flag started appearing everywhere—on clothes, bar glasses, car bumpers and even picnic napkins and cups. The flag was now a ubiquitous advertising image and disposable, rather than the living entity defined in the Flag Code.
This brought out the flag zealots, ready to pounce on any perceived violation to the Flag Code, turning the code into a club rather than using the occasion to teach. And while I sometimes joke about creating the Flag Police, I view The Daily Flag as a platform to instruct people who fly the American flag in proper etiquette. It’s all a matter of honor.
What’s the Solution?
Believe it or not, there is a solution, but it comes later. In the next part of this series, I will discuss some of the self-inflicted obstacles to flying the U.S. flag correctly. Then, what parts of the U.S. Flag Code isn’t for flag flyers, but others. Then the Flag Code simplified. Yep, the few things you need to know to be in accordance with the Code without really trying.
Let’s see if we can get back to the basics of flying the U.S. flag.