Once upon a time, probably almost 30 years ago (but what’s three decades when you’re my age?), I was living in, let’s just say, a nearby town. It was Memorial Day and, just like this past weekend, all kinds of parades and observances were in the works.
So far, so good. It only dawned on me that the local parade would be coming down my street when I noticed the little American flags that had magically appeared overnight on every lawn along the parade route.
So far, so good. Then I noticed that each little flag had a card attached to its staff, so I looked closer and discovered that the cards were advertisements for a local real estate agency.
Not so good. I was pretty sure this was at least a violation of custom, if not of federal law.
Since we’re talking B.G. here (Before Goggle), I had to go to the library to find out, but a Congressional Research Service report on laws and customs governing the display and treatment of the flag says: “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. … Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.”
That language was very clear, so I went down to my local police department and lodged a complaint. Really.
I don’t think anything was put in writing, but I was given a very polite brush-off with something about somebody would look into it, or something.
I never called back — didn’t want to give them the pleasure of putting their hand over the receiver, turning to someone else in the cop shop and saying, “It’s that weirdo again; wants to know something about those flags.”
And that’s how I became a local crank. Only later did I hear that one or more wives of local police officers had probably been the ones who planted those lawn flags with the advertising cards.
And besides, what were local cops supposed to do when the Supreme Court had just ruled that flag burning, which most people would consider an act of desecration, could qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment? In other words, flag law was in flux at the time.
Anyway, I learned a few more things from the CRS report. Even though there are generally no penalties for violating the rules of flag etiquette, there are other acts that are at least strongly discouraged. F’rinstance:
•“The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.”
•“The flag should not be … printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.”
•“No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations.”
•“The flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides, or back” of a car, train or boat.
•Any president, however, has the authority to amend or delete any of these regulations. Therefore, it seems that adding a big, golden “T” to the flag would not necessarily be prohibited.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.