Flag of the United States of America
The American flag, often affectionately known as "Old Glory" or the "Stars and Stripes", consists of a blue field with 50 white stars on it (one for each state), with the remainder being thirteen stripes (7 red and 6 white), in memory of the original thirteen states.
Since the stars reflect the number of states in the US, the flag has changed as the number of states has changed. Originally, the flag contained thirteen stars. There were several variations in the original arrangment of the stars, a popular one being the design of Betsy Ross arranged in a circle. Both the stripes and star were increased to fifteen on admission of Kentucky and Vermont but later revisions reverted to the stripes of the thriteen "original" states to avoid the obvious aesthetic problem of adding a stripe each time any new state entered the union. It was decided thereafter that a star would be added on the fourth of July following the admission of the state. The current fifty stars are arranged in five rows of six stars alternating with four rows of five stars.
It is displayed at all Federal buildings, and many homes and businesses also proudly display it.
The United States Flag Code (title 4, chapter 1 of the United States Code) is a law which describes the official appearance of the Flag of the United States and how it should be handled. The US Flag Code is purely descriptive, and does not include any provisions for enforcement outside of the District of Columbia.
In addition, the US Flag Code codifies the Pledge of Allegiance.
Appearance of the Flag
Section one and two describe the official appearance of the US flag. Section one of the Code describes the flag as "thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white," with a union of "forty-eight stars, white in a blue field." The code, which was passed before the 1959 incorporation of Alaska and Hawaii as the 49th and 50th states, also makes provisions for updating the flag in section two, adding new stars for new states on the following fourth of July.
Handling the Flag
Section three describes how not to handle the flag, and sections five through nine describe how to handle, display, store, and respect the flag.
Defacement and Misuse of the Flag
Section 3 describes how the US flag should not be handled, misused, or defaced.
While the bulk of the code is purely descriptive, violating section 3 within the District of Columbia carries a penalty of "a fine not exceeding $100 or by imprisonment for not more than thirty days, or both, in the discretion of the court." There is much controversy concerning misuse and abuse of the US flag, and violation of this law is seldom prosecuted.
Pledge of Allegiance
Section four describes the Pledge of Allegiance, both codifying its text and describing proper conduct during the Pledge of Allegiance. People in military uniform should silently salute the flag, while other people should remove any non-religious headgear, and face the flag with their right hand over their heart.
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.
- The text of Title 4 of the United States Code, Chapter 1 hosted by the Government Printing Office's GPO Access
- USHistory.org on handling and treatment of the US Flag