Legalese — Respecting the Flag

There has been much talk recently about respect for the flag of the United States of America.  People have different ideas about what respect for the flag means, and what is and isn’t disrespectful.  Luckily, Congress has already had this debate for us, and there is a section of the law which tells us outright.

U.S. Code 36-10 talks about patriotic customs, and section 176 is specifically called “Respect for the Flag.”  Following, I’ve copied each sub-section, and then translated it into English.

“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.“  In other words, the flag doesn’t show respect to us, we show respect to it.

“(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.”  The ‘union’ is the field of stars – that should always be pointing up unless you are using it as a distress signal.  And not the kind of distress where you are out of Doritos and need someone to go to the store – “extreme danger to life or property.” 

“(b) The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.”  This one is kind of obvious.  The flag flies, it doesn’t rest.

“(c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.” I’ve seen a number of half time shows and parades in which this one gets violated.

“(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.”  What this says is contrary to what a lot of people think – wearing the flag on your clothing isn’t a patriotic sign, it is disrespectful.  I mean, think about it – if you’re wearing the flag on your shorts, you are sitting on it.  If you are wearing it as a shirt you are (if you are me) likely to drip your food on it.  If you want to decorate with the flag, use red white and blue bunting, not the flag itself.

“(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.”  Seems to me that leaving it out in a rainstorm would make it easily torn, soiled, or damaged; also flying down the highway at 80 miles an hour is the same as leaving it outside in hurricane force winds. 

“(f) The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.” Since they say ‘ceiling’ here and not ‘roof’ I assume they mean that you shouldn’t pin a flag to your ceiling in the way that you might a poster or hang a mirror. 

“(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.”  This means that the flag should remain as it is, without additional decoration on it.  Even writing something patriotic like “these colors don’t run” on it would be disrespectful.   

“(h) The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.”  No flag purses, duffle bags, backpacks, or totes. If you are going to run away from home, and you are going to tie up your belongings and put them on a stick, don’t do it with a flag.

“(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.”  This one is a doozy.  The flag should not be on anything that you throw away, sit on, or blow your nose in.  This would apply to all those ‘patriotic’ paper plates and napkins we use on the Fourth of July.  Also, if you have your flag flying from a pole, don’t also advertise from the same pole.   

“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.”   Any part of a costume or uniform that uses the flag as decoration is a no-no.  You can use a flag patch if you are public safety or a part of a patriotic organization, like the boy or girl scouts.  If you wear a flag pin, wear it close to your 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.”   The flag should be in good condition if it is on display.  If it is soiled or damaged, you should get rid of it, but not by throwing it in the trash along with the orange peels, used tissue, and yogurt cups.  Like it says in subsection “j”, “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.”  You wouldn’t dispose of the corpse of a living thing that you respect and/or love by tossing it out with yesterday’s newspaper.  You’d bury it or have it cremated, or otherwise dispose of the remains respectfully.   

Bear in mind that this is the law of the nation, but it is not a criminal law.  There is no penalty for violating this law beyond the consequences of public (and private) opinion.  However, if you want to respect the flag, Congress has determined how you should and shouldn’t do it, and these are the rules.   

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