Use and Display of the American Flag


Many countries around the world, including the UK, have some form of Flag Code. In some it carries the weight of law while in others it is simple guidance on when and how the country's flag should be flown.

The U. S. Flag code is 4 U.S.C. 1 Sections 1 - 10. It is also useful to review 36 U.S.C. 10 Sections 171- 189 Patriotic Customs. Either one of these is typical of the way laws are written, they're a good sleep aide. However if you want the full treatment these are the place to go. The simplest way to find these is to go to the Google search engine and enter "flag code". You will get many sites with both of these Titles as well as some other useful stuff. You need to be aware that you will also find sites that deal with things such as the flag code of India and the flag code of Texas. Just be aware of what you are looking at.

Previous to Flag Day, June 14, 1923 there were no federal or state regulations governing display of the United States Flag. It was on this date that the National Flag Code was adopted by the National Flag Conference which was attended by representatives of the Army and Navy which had evolved their own procedures, and some 66 other national groups. This purpose of providing guidance based on the Army and Navy procedures relating to display and associated questions about the U.S. Flag was adopted by all organizations in attendance.

A few minor changes were made a year later during the Flag Day 1924 Conference. It was not until June 22, 1942 that Congress passed a joint resolution which was amended on December 22, 1942 to become Public Law 829; Chapter 806, 77th Congress, 2nd session. Exact rules for use and display of the flag as well as associated sections Conduct during Playing of the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, and Manner of Delivery were included.

Title 4 of the Code concerns itself largely with administrative issues. Chapter 1 is mainly about the flag, and it provides penalties of up to $100 and/or 30 days imprisonment for certain abuses of the flag provided that they take place in the District of Columbia (although many States have their own legislation). There also used to be offences relating to the desecration and mutilation of the flag, but these were removed in 1968.

In 1989, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act. This provided Federal penalties for desecration and mutilation of the flag, but it did not last long. Following an appeal which went to the Supreme Court in 1990, it was ruled that the Flag Protection Act was unconstitutional in that it restricted the right of free speech (although the penalties of Title 4 mentioned above still remain).

The code is the guide for all handling and display of the Stars and Stripes. While the Code empowers the President of the United States to alter, modify, repeal or prescribe additional rules regarding the Flag, no federal agency has the authority to issue 'official' rulings legally binding on civilians or civilian groups. Consequently, different interpretations of various provisions of the Code may continue to be made. The Flag Code may be fairly tested: 'No disrespect should be shown to the Flag of the United States of America.' Therefore, actions not specifically included in the Code may be deemed acceptable as long as proper respect is shown. It does not impose penalties for misuse of the United States Flag. That is left to the states and to the federal government for the District of Columbia. Each state has its own flag law.

All the states, at one time or another, have enacted laws relating to the United States Flag. The Federal Flag Code does not provide penalties for certain conduct or may not govern certain practices, but state laws often do. At the national level, the Federal Flag Code provides uniform
guidelines for the display of, and respect shown to, Our Flag, and conduct during playing of the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. The Code is designed 'for the use of such civilian groups of organizations as may not be required to conform with regulations promulgated by one or more executive departments' of the federal government, such as the armed forces. The Flag Code does not prescribe any penalties for non-compliance nor does it include enforcement provisions. Rather, it functions as a guide to be voluntarily followed by civilians and civilian groups.

Here are a few terms that will not be used again, but that you might come across at sometime in the future. These terms are Latin and are used to speak about flags and the study of flags.  "Vexiloid" means a staff topped by an emblem. It serves the same purpose as a flag and can be considered ancestral to it. "Vexillum" is a piece of cloth fastened to a crossbar, which was used as the standard of the Roman cavalry. "Vexillology" is the study of flags and other devices that are used in a similar manner.

The following terms are often used in both speaking and writing. "Colors" are flags carried by dismounted units. "Standards" are carried by mounted (on vehicles, on horses, etc.) units.  "Ensigns" are flown from Naval vessels. Colors and Standards are typically three feet by four feet. Color or Standard when used alone means the National Color or National Standard. The Colors means both the National Color and any other Color.

The flag should not be dipped to any person or thing, with one exception: Navy vessels, upon receiving a salute of this type from a vessel registered by a nation formally recognized by the United States, must return the compliment.

How to Fold the Flag

Fold the flag in half width-wise twice. Fold up a triangle, starting at the striped end ... and repeat ... until only the end of the union is exposed. Then fold down the square into a triangle and tuck inside the folds.

How to Display the Flag

When the flag is displayed over the middle of the street, it should be suspended vertically with the union to the north in an east and west street or to the east in a north and south street.

The flag of the United States of America, when it is displayed with another flag against a wall from crossed staffs, should be on the right, the flag's own right [that means the viewer's left], and its staff should be in front of the staff of the other flag.

The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. By "half-staff" is meant lowering the flag to one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff. Crepe streamers may be affixed to spear heads or flagstaffs in a parade only by order of the President of the United States.

When flags of States, cities, or localities, or pennants of societies are flown on the same halyard with the flag of the United States, the latter should always be at the peak. When the flags are flown from adjacent staffs, the flag of the United States should be hoisted first and lowered last.
No such flag or pennant may be placed above the flag of the United States or to the right of the flag of the United States (the viewer's left). When the flag is half-masted, both flags are half-masted, with the US flag at the mid-point and the other flag below.

When the flag is suspended over a sidewalk from a rope extending from a house to a pole at the edge of the sidewalk, the flag should be hoisted out, union first, from the building.

When the flag of the United States is displayed from a staff projecting horizontally or at an angle from the window sill, balcony, or front of a building, the union of the flag should be placed at the peak of the staff unless the flag is at half-staff.

When the flag is used to cover a casket, it should be so placed that the union is at the head and over the left shoulder. The flag should not be lowered into the grave or allowed to touch the ground.

When the flag is displayed in a manner other than by being flown from a staff, it should be displayed flat, whether indoors or out. When displayed either horizontally or vertically against a wall, the union should be uppermost and to the flag's own right, that is, to the observer's left. When displayed in a window it should be displayed in the same way, that is with the union or blue field to the left of the observer in the street. When festoons, rosettes or drapings are desired, bunting of blue, white and red should be used, but never the flag.

The flag of the United States of America when carried in a procession with another flag, or flags, should be either on the marching right; that is, the flag's own right, or, if there is a line of other flags, in front of the center of that line.

The evolution required for reversing the direction of the color guard looks complicated. The basic point is that the American Flag moves as little as possible in reversing direction and that all of the rest of the members of the color guard move so as to return to their original position in relation to the American flag.

The flag of the United States of America should be at the center and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags of States or localities or pennants of societies are grouped and displayed from staffs.

When flags of two or more nations are displayed, they are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height. The flags should be of approximately equal size. International usage forbids the display of the flag of one nation above that of another nation in time of peace.

When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium on or off a podium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman's or speaker's right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker (to the right of the audience).

When the flag is displayed on a car, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.

When hung in a window, place the blue union in the upper left, as viewed from the street.

Here are some points phrased in the form of questions. The answers in quotation marks are from the Flag Code.

Is it appropriate to fly a flag that has fewer than 50 stars? Yes. There is nothing wrong in flying a historic flag.

What does the Flag Code say about displaying the flag horizontally, as before a football game?  "The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free."

Is it okay to have a flag t-shirt with words written on it? No, the flag should never be worn and no, the flag should never have marks or words written upon it. "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel. 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."

Is it okay to use flag napkins or flag paper plates? No. "It should not be ... printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard."

Isn't the American flag stamp in violation of the flag rules? The answer appears to be yes. "The flag should never be ... used ... in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way. The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark ... of any nature. [The flag] should not be printed or otherwise impressed on ... anything that is designed for temporary use and discard."

Is it okay for an advertisement to use the flag? No. "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever."

Is it okay to fly a flag that was used to drape a coffin? The Flag Code makes no reference to this use, but consensus among experts is that yes, it would be an honor to display the flag to show patriotism.

Can I have people sign my flag? No, you should never sign the flag directly on it. If your flag has a canvas strip that holds the grommets, it is acceptable to have everyone sign along that canvas strip. Or, you can have everyone sign a separate document that can then be framed and displayed with the flag.

I am thinking of getting a flag tattoo. Is it okay? There is nothing in the Flag Code about tattoos. The question is one of respect for the flag. In this case one person's respect is another's disrespect, and we advise against a flag tattoo. Perhaps an American eagle would look good?

I am not a citizen of the US; am I expected to salute the flag? Americans should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform men should remove any non-religious headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute. Those who are not U.S. citizens should stand at attention.

On a vehicle how should two flags (i.e. the US flag and a POW/MIA flag) be positioned? At the front of the vehicle he US flag should always be on own its right. The POW/MIA or other flag flies on its left, which is the viewer's right, facing the vehicle. Vehicles include motorcycles.

What is a flag? This question does not have an obvious answer. One conclusion is that the flag is that which we recognize to be the flag.

~~ Robert Smith, VFP109