Flag etiquette: Local Judge Gerald A. Williams talks about respect and care for the symbol of our nation

Flag Etiquette 

Local Judge Gerald A. Williams talks about respect and care for the symbol of our nation.

What is special about the month of June? Are there any good holidays? Well, June 2 is National Doughnut Day, which certainly sounds like a good idea. Pentecost, Father’s Day, and of course, Juneteenth also occur in June. D-Day occurred on June 6, 1944; but there is one other often-overlooked day. Flag Day is June 14.

American flag etiquette is important to me, perhaps because I’m an Eagle Scout and a member of the American Legion; but for other reasons as well. It’s is just basic common courtesy.

What you learned in elementary school about not allowing our nation’s flag to touch the ground (or the floor or water under it) still rings true. When such mishandling occurs, it’s a sign of disrespect, as is using the flag as a form of drapery, for advertising, or as an item of clothing.

If you’re confused about which way to display the flag, that’s okay. It can get a little complicated given the various options for a flag to be vertical, horizontal, and/or next to a speaker. The 1979 Boy Scout Handbook suggests this simple rule. “Consider yourself the flag. Consider your right shoulder to be the blue field. Face people with yourself to the right.”

If a flag gets dirty, then clean it. If one gets torn, then mend it. If one becomes damaged beyond repair, then drop it off at an American Legion Post so that it will be destroyed in a dignified manner.

Although it’s seldom enforced, there’s actually a set of federal laws known as the U.S. Flag Code. One section notes, “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.” 4 U.S.C. § 8(j).

So why is flag etiquette important? It’s a symbol of freedom and justice and has been for over 240 years. Both in times of war and in times of peace, its very presence has provided notice to our adversaries and assurance to our allies that representatives from our country are present and that our republic lives. Some symbols matter more than others; our flag is a symbol that matters more than most.


Is It Okay to Burn the Flag in Protest?

In a famous case, as part of a protest against Ronald Reagan’s administration, the defendant burned the American flag while others chanted, “America, the red, white, and blue. We spit on you. You stand for plunder, you will go under.” The protest occurred in Dallas while the city was hosting the Republican National Convention.

By a vote of five to four, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the protestor’s conviction and held that burning an American flag during a protest rally was expressive conduct that is protected by the First Amendment. Justice Antonin Scalia was the fifth vote.

The two justices from Arizona, William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Conner, dissented. They noted that the protestor was free to say anything he wanted to; but that our flag deserved at least minimal protection because of its unique role. It should not be “just another symbol.” This dissenting opinion also noted the irony in the result from the majority opinion, “The government may conscript men into the Armed Forces where they must fight and perhaps die for the flag, but the government may not prohibit the public burning of the banner under which they fight.”

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