As evidenced by royal wedding merchandise and World Cup shirts emblazoned with the United Kingdom’s Union Jack, national flags can be symbols of unity and pride. They also can be instruments of division and hatred. President Donald Trump announced the 2018 celebration of Flag Week just days after disinviting the Philadelphia Eagles from the White House and implying that they were “disrespectful” of the flag and national anthem.
The United States observes Flag Day on June 14 in commemoration of the June 14, 1777, adoption of the Stars and Stripes as the nation’s official flag. Flag Week, “the week in which June 14 falls,” and Honor America Days, “the 21 days from Flag Day through Independence Day,” are designated by Congress as special occasions to “display the flag” and honor the country. At this time of year and in this year in particular, when some Americans measure patriotism by the size and number of their flags, it is important to be mindful of the prescribed manner for displaying and showing respect for the flag.
Most Americans know that standing and placing “their right hand over the heart” is the proper way to demonstrate respect for the flag when it is being carried past, or being raised or lowered, but flag displays have been the cause of some controversy in our nation. What many ostensibly patriotic Americans do not know and, if known, do not obey, is that the federal law also prohibits using the flag “as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery,” “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,” “for advertising purposes” or “as a costume or athletic uniform.” Since 1976 an exception has been made for lapel pins.
Many ostensibly patriotic Americans do not know and, if known, do not obey, that federal law prohibits using the flag “as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery,” “embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs" and more.
Thus, wearing a Stars and Stripes shirt, cap or tie and using an American-flag tablecloth and napkins at your Fourth of July party are, according to federal law, as disrespectful as kneeling during the national anthem. Flying the flag in bad weather and after sunset, unless illuminated, also is prohibited.
Laws cannot explain why home or auto owners who display flags 24/7, or purveyors and purchasers of flag merchandise that commercialize and desecrate our most honored symbol, are not vilified, but the Flag Code’s lack of enforcement provisions explains why they are not punished. As the Congressional Research Service notes, “The Flag Code is intended as a guide to be followed on a purely voluntary basis to insure proper respect for the flag.”
The Flag Code is not enforced because the First Amendment protects our right to use the flag for our own free speech purposes. The Constitution protects the right of politicians to wrap themselves in the flag (figuratively and literally) as clearly as it protects the right of protesters to burn or deface the flag.
The Flag Code was enacted in 1942 to protect the flag from unseemly and disrespectful conduct. Americans who respect the flag, “the Republic for which it stands” and the U.S. Constitution should know the law and follow it as their hearts and minds dictate, without casting aspersions on the patriotism of those who do not wear their flag on their shirtsleeves or front lawns or lapels.