By DeVaughn Simper, Vexillologist
In the last several decades, society has placed a lot of value in the concept of identity. Marketing professionals tell us that the brand is a critical asset to protect at all costs. That brand identity is represented by a unique symbol that embodies what the organization stands for. Organizations research, develop and promote of their brands to increase recognition, gain market share and instill customer loyalty.
When we think of shopping experiences, we think of companies like Wal-Mart or Amazon that have splashed their symbols on every form of merchandise, facility and signage that’s possible. Sports teams’ take their brands to a whole new level with their fans who become an extension of a team’s identity with fervent enthusiasm every game day. Technology and the latest gadgets create a level of loyalty that dictates how we work, play and live. To be able to show we are brand ambassadors and that we belong gives us a sense of pride, solidarity, and quite often, a purpose.
That sense of belonging is an important part of the human psyche. We often forget that we already belong to something important — America. We are Americans. Our country’s symbol is a simple design that is imbedded with history, pride and sacrifice. Thirteen stripes alternating red and white with 50 stars on a field of blue — the flag of the United States of America. It is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world. It is also one of the most abused and misunderstood. Many myths and urban legends exist about the proper use and display of the flag. It can create confusion, often leading to contention, which is primarily caused by the different sets of rules that have been established over the last two centuries.
Companies spend millions of dollars to create and maintain their brand identity, part of that is establishing rules and guidelines of how their logo is to be used. The flag of the United States has two complete sets of rules and guidelines. A specific flag code exists for civilian use, while the military has a separate set of rules and regulations. Here, we will utilize the Civilian Flag Code. The flag code is comprised of Titles 4, 18 and 36 of the US Code.
What is a flag?
Title 4 has a description of the flag, including what is considered a flag, as well as how and when to display it. It also includes specific examples of what shouldn’t be done with the flag. Title 18 describes possible criminal penalties that are associated with violations of Title 4; however, these are extremely difficult to prosecute since the Supreme Court enacted restrictions on flag desecration laws with the 1986 Texas v. Johnson case.
According to Title 4 USC Chapter 1 subsection 3, “The words ‘flag, standard, colors or ensign,’ as used herein, shall include any flag, standard, colors, ensign, or any picture or representation of either, or of any part or parts of either, made of any substance or represented on any substance, of any size evidently purporting to be either of said flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States of America or a picture or a representation of either, upon which shall be shown the colors, the stars and the stripes, in any number of either thereof, or of any part or parts of either, by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag, colors, standard, or ensign of the United States of America.”
This means, if it looks like the flag of the United States, it really is a flag of the United States. This includes every thing from the little flags we get on our July 4 patriotic cupcakes to the image of the flag printed on a t-shirt. This little known aspect of the flag code makes a huge difference on the interpretation of the rest of the rules.
What are the rules?
The flag code breaks this down into three sections: when to display, how to display, and how to respect the flag.
Americans are encouraged to always display the Stars and Stripes but especially on federal and state holidays, like Memorial Day (the last Monday of May), Flag Day (June 14) and the nation’s birthday, the Fourth of July. The flag is to be displayed in a respectful manner. If the flagpole is mounted to your home, it should be on a 45-degree angle near the front door. If placed in your yard, the flagpole should be perpendicular to ground (this includes any flag attached to PVC pipe and secured with metal bar). If displayed at night, the flag should be illuminated with a light.
If you are like me and use your flag in home décor, the flag should be displayed with the canton or blue field positioned in the upper left facing the intended viewer.
When on display with other flags, the US flag should be in the place of honor — it should be to the farthest left of the viewer, often referred too as the flag’s own right. Other flags should not be higher than the US flag. This is often misunderstood, as the US flag is always higher than other flags. Not so. Any other flags should be flown at equal height with the US flag, especially if it is on display with flags from other countries. Never fly another country’s flag on the same pole as the US flag. Many like to fly their state flag on the same pole as the American flag. As a general thought, try to use a flag that is one size smaller than the US flag, simply because it looks better.
In times of mourning, the President or Governor of a state may issue a proclamation or executive order to fly the flag at half-staff. The only ones who are required to follow this order are federal and state agencies or properties while civilians are encouraged to participate. If it is not practical to place your flag at half-staff, you can attach a black mourning ribbon to the top grommet of the flag or the top of the staff.
Respect for the flag is rather subjective. The flag should never touch the ground or anything beneath it. It also should never be displayed or stored in a place that could damage or soil it. It shouldn’t be used as a bag, covering, costume or apparel. It also should never be printed on anything that could easily be discarded (think about that one when buying stuff for your next holiday picnic).
Then, when the flag is no longer a fitting emblem, it should be destroyed (decommissioned), preferably by burning. This act prevents the flag from being used in an inappropriate manner or left in a trash pile. Decommissioning a flag can be done in the privacy of your home or yard. There are no prescribed ceremonies or rituals. Several patriotic groups such as scouting or veteran service organizations have developed their own procedures for retiring an American flag and have been asked by Congress to help the public with this simple act.
All these rules and regulations are intended to be a guide for branding the Star Spangled Banner — our nation’s greatest symbol. We, as Americans, love our flag, so much so that we seem to put it on just about everything. We use it in times of celebration, mourning, distress and even protest. We belong to the most successful constitutional republic in the history of the world. With all our differences and challenges, we should stand up and take pride in knowing that we are still one nation under one flag.
DeVaughn Simper is a Vexillologist with Colonial Flag. He is an award-winning, dynamic speaker and writer of flag history and protocols. He shares his love and knowledge of all things flags through his alter-persona Professor Flag. He can be contacted at facebook.com/ProfessorFlagg
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