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American Flags: Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em

June 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

SEE: Joint resolution of Congress detailing the use of the flag.

It is an American tradition: parades, fireworks, ballgames, barbecues … and flags – many, many flags. On July 4, American flags will be ubiquitous as American citizens at home and around the world celebrate Independence Day.

226 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the stars and stripes still constitute a potent symbol of the history, principles, and aspirations of the people of the United States.

For instance, the specter of September 11 will hang over this year’s July 4 festivities, but it will manifest itself not in fear and doubt but in a renewed zeal in displaying the flag. Millions will raise "The Star-Spangled Banner" to express the hope and defiance of Francis Scott Key’s poem, in which the flag represents a nation being strengthened in the face of an enemy attack: "… our flag was still there."

Yet the flag that represents all United States citizens does not always unify us. It is in fact a credit to the flag’s symbolic importance that it is also the center of much controversy. In Puerto Rico, that significance plays a key role in the continuing debate on the island’s permanent political status.

On June 20, statehood supporters arrived at the Women’s Advocacy Office in San Juan to protest the removal of the US flag by the office’s director, a supporter of Puerto Rican independence. What started out as an administrative dispute erupted into violence, leaving several people injured as New Progressive Party president Carlos Pesquera stormed the building’s lobby with an American flag in hand.

The fundamental issue behind the conflict in San Juan – when the US flag should be displayed, and how – has been all but lost amid a stream of partisan threats and accusations. It is a question, however, that is pertinent to all Puerto Ricans, who will soon celebrate 50 years of the island’s "commonwealth" relationship with the United States, and indeed to all Americans who plan to fly the flag on Independence Day.

There is not an abundance of federal law regarding the flag of the United States of America. The first flag law was passed by the Continental Congress in 1777; it outlined the design of the new American flag but specified little else. That law was updated in 1794 to account for the admission of new states to the young Republic. Since then, only three additional laws have been passed to set the appearance of the flag, in 1818, 1912, and 1959.

Until 1923, there were no national guidelines for the proper display and treatment of the flag, only a loose and disputed set of habits and customs. In that year, a National Flag Conference was held to codify the rules regarding the flag. Congress added its stamp to those rules with resolutions in 1942 and 1976, making them part of the United States Code.

The rules set forth in the US Code were intended as guidelines to civilians when they wish to display the flag. They do not have jurisdiction over regulations of the armed forces or government agencies, and they do not contain any provisions for enforcement or penalties for misuse. Rather, they constitute a uniform protocol to be followed voluntarily.

Some of the rules set forth in the US Code are more familiar than others. For instance, the US flag should always be given the place of honor when displayed with other flags. In practice, this means that the US flag should always be displayed on its own right (the viewer’s left), or at the front and center, or above all other flags. There is a proper way to fold the flag, it should only be flown at night if properly illuminated, and it should be disposed of honorably, preferably by burning, when it becomes too worn for use.

There are a number of additional rules on flag display. For example, the flag is never supposed to be represented on clothes, or in advertising. It should not be draped over a statue, hung from a train, or attached to the hood of a vehicle. It should never be flown upside down, unless as a signal of distress.

Many of the above rules are often broken, either in protest or through carelessness. The latter instances can be prevented, and Congress has passed resolutions on flag use precisely to address public confusion. It is crucial to note, however, that the US Code regarding flags is not mandatory or binding, because we enjoy broad protections under the First Amendment when it comes to treatment (or mistreatment) of the flag. It is for this reason that the Supreme Court has struck down laws outlawing flag-burning, making it necessary to amend the constitution – which contains no reference to the flag – in order to penalize the flag’s desecration.

When it comes to the display of the American flag in public buildings – which caused all the recent trouble in Puerto Rico – federal law allows local jurisdictions and individual federal agencies to develop their own regulations. Such regulations are on the books across the country, but perhaps more important is the strength of tradition.

Diane Moore, of the Legislative Maintenance Department in the State Capitol of New Mexico, could not specify any particular law regulating flag display in state buildings. Nevertheless, when questioned whether the New Mexico flag would ever appear without the US flag, her response was unequivocal. "No," she said. "We always fly them together. Never one without the other."

In the case of Puerto Rico, the island’s State Department has required since 1995 that the US flag be displayed with the flag of Puerto Rico. Women’s Advocate Maria Dolores Fernos was thus clearly in violation of local government procedure (which stands apart from an individual’s freedom of speech) when she determined in March that the flag of Puerto Rico should stand alone in her office’s lobby.

Moreover, her decision ran contrary to the respect with which all Americans are asked to treat the US flag, not because we have to, but because of the past sacrifices and the living people and institutions that the flag represents. That respect constitutes perhaps the most important guideline for those who wish to display the American flag, and any other flags with which they identity, this July 4.

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