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Code Red, White & Blue: Taking care of your American flag

Code Red, White & Blue: Taking care of your American flag

By Luke Porco

Throughout history, flags have been, and always will be, prevalent throughout their respective countries. For example, in the United States of America, wherever you walk, you will be sure to see an American flag displayed in front of a home or business, among other places, and it is integral to this country’s culture. However, another key element to displaying those flags are flag etiquette and taking care of the flag. 

The U.S. flag code was created on June 14, 1923, by the National Flag Conference, which included over 68 organizations, such as the Army and Navy. It is still used today as a guide for both the military and civilians to follow.  While the flag code is a U.S. law, and Title 18 of the United States Code stated that “Whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.” in 1989 the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, and it was amended as the Flag Protection Act of 1989, which was later declared unconstitutional, in the decision of United States v. Eichman, on June 11, 1990. 

The flag code is still expected to be used as the proper flag etiquette. According to Bryan Rooney, a member of American Legion Post 12 from Norwalk, Conn., and active Captain of the U.S. Army National Guard of Pennsylvania, “The U.S. Flag Code is federal law. Over the past 30 years, however, the courts have ruled in favor of freedom of expression over regulations regarding the impositions of penalties for mistreatment of the flag. The Flag Code is no longer strictly enforced via legal penalties, fines, or jail. It is to be used as a guide for the handling, care, and display of the U.S. Flag but does not impose penalties for the misuse of the flag. My general rules for care and display of the flag as a civilian are to follow the flag code and look there first for what to do correctly, and do your absolute best to respect and honor the flag.”

American flag

The flag code also applies for the everyday use of flags, such as when to raise and lower the flags, as well as treatment during inclement weather, and storage. The general guideline for displaying the flag is "...from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed twenty-four hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.." The flag code also states that, ‘The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all weather flag is displayed."

According to Rooney, there are exceptions to those statements. “...if the US flag code says that it’s customary to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open, and the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during hours of darkness. The hard part there is, people… aren’t conscious of the fact that ‘hey, at 6:00, I should go get my flag and bring it inside.` And on the same token, they don’t get the wiring to illuminate 24 hours. So yes, in theory, they should follow those guidelines, and those that do it to the best of their ability are doing everything right, but there are some exceptions. It says don’t fly the flag in inclement weather, but if it’s an all-weather flag, that’s allowed…”

Another topic that has been discussed is whether or not it is appropriate to go against flag code in the event of a national tragedy, such as 9/11. During that time, people hung flags regardless of weather and time of day, which Rooney said,”...the flag code is very specific about the manner in which our flag is to be used, including hanging it over any sort of structure… it should not be put on clothing, it should not be on athletic uniform, and yet you often see the flag in some way, shape, or form as a part of a lot of U.S. national teams’ uniform, whether it’s on the back at the top part of the shoulder, on the sleeves, as a part of the crest on the front, so while the flag code says (the flag should not be on uniform), again, there’s some generic flexibility that I don’t think anyone’s mad about. I can’t speak for everyone, I’m sure some people are specific to that flag code, but I know I see flag displayed on a lot of regular clothing you can buy. That’s supposed to be not in accordance with code, but again, is it really disrespectful? I think there’s a gray area argument to be made in the Supreme Court over the last 20 years, well before 9/11, has made it so that freedom of expression is allowed.”

Overall, while the flag code is serious, it is a guideline and there are some exceptions to the rules, such as the flag on clothing and athletic uniforms. As Rooney said though, respecting the flag and following flag code are the most important things to do. 

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