Most Americans are fairly knowledgeable about their nation’s flag, having been drilled through the Pledge of Allegiance daily in school and instructed in some form about “flag etiquette,” the rules and guidelines that surround proper use and display of the standard. These rules are enumerated in Title IV, Chapter One of the U.S. Code. Most of this is common sense – don’t let the flag touch the ground; don’t fly it underneath another flag; lower it for the night, unless you have a flashlight to shine on it.
Despite being enumerated in the U.S. Code, most of these rules are not strictly enforced. Your neighbors might be unhappy about it, but you’re unlikely to be arrested or disciplined if you drop a flag on the ground, drape it over the hood of your car or fly it upside down–although the latter would be unwise, akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater, since flying any flag upside down is a universal symbol of emergency. The flag code is limited in its enforcement for the same reason it isn’t illegal to burn the flag in protest: freedom of speech.
However, oftentimes Flag Code violations are done not out of protest but rather out of simple carelessness. This is what leads people to buy American flag napkins for their Fourth of July parties, despite Section 8 of the Flag Code, which states, “It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.” That sentence is preceded in the code by this one: “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever,” a provision which is even more flagrantly disregarded. The flag is ubiquitous in television commercials and print ads for everything from department stores to car dealerships, and while economic support for one’s country is a wonderful thing, it needn’t be conflated with patriotism.
The Flag Code goes on to say that “no part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.” In the past, this stipulation has caused controversy over the uniforms of U.S. Olympic athletes, which are often striped and star- spangled. Personally, I should be inclined to think that we could give the athletes an exception, since they are representing the country abroad and need to be easily distinguishable during sporting events. Everyday wear, however, deserves no such special consideration. Flag-print shorts or bathing trunks are a twofold violation of the code; in sitting down, the wearer allows the flag to touch the ground. Outside of the flag patch worn on the uniforms of police, firefighters and military personnel, and the flag pin worn by politicians—both of which are specifically exempted in the code—use of the flag on clothing is well-intentioned but perhaps not judicious.
It’s clear that the people buying and selling these kinds of products are not trying to make any kind of anti-American statements. But, just as you wouldn’t use any national flag as a doormat, it’s reasonable to think twice before using one as a throw pillow or cocktail napkin. If the flag were used less frequently for advertising and clothing, it might have more symbolic power in the minds of American citizens.
Passanisi is a member of
the class of 2017.