The Flag of the United States has sometimes been used in symbolic defacement, often in protest of the policies of the United States Government, both within the country and abroad.
In 1862, during the Union army's occupation of New Orleans in the American Civil War, the military governor, Benjamin Franklin Butler, sentenced William B. Mumford to death for removing an American flag. Today, defacing a flag is an act of protected speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as established in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), and reaffirmed in U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990).
After these decisions, several "flag burning" amendments to the Constitution have been proposed. Any amendment to the US Constitution must first be passed by Congress and be ratified by a 75% majority, 38 of the 50 states. On June 22, 2005, a flag burning amendment was passed by the House with the needed two thirds majority. On June 27, 2006, the most recent attempt to pass a ban on flag burning was rejected by the Senate in a close vote of 66 in favor, 34 opposed, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the amendment to be voted on by the states..
The United States Flag Code lists many guidelines for the use and display of the flag, many of which are largely ignored. For example,
- "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform".
- The flag "should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper". Flags are even used sometimes as carpeting, violating such guidelines as not allowing the flag to touch the ground, not displaying it in a horizontal position, and not displaying it in a manner which is likely to allow it to get soiled.
- The ritualized burning of the American flag is described in the United States Flag Code as an appropriate way to dispose of a damaged or soiled flag. Flags are burned in respectful retirement ceremonies by the American Legion, Boy Scouts, The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Sons of the American Legion.
- Flying an American flag upside down is not necessarily disrespectful. The practice has its origin in a military distress signal; displaying a flag in this manner is "a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property", it has been used by extension to make a statement about distress in civic, political, or other areas.