Law re: The Flag

This is actually a simple question, but since it may turn into a debate, I post it on this board.
When I was in Girl Scouts, I remember there being all these rules we had to follow with the American Flag. For instance, we couldn’t let it touch the ground. Now, at the moment, it is legal to, for instance, burn the flag. So, if we weren’t allowed to accidentally let it touch the floor, how is it okay to let someone burn it on purpose? In other words, the rules that girl and boy scouts and the military follow…is that actual law, or just guidelines that those groups follow?

My understanding when I was in Air Cadets (Canadian para-military group for teens, kind of like boy scouts but more military) was that it wasn’t law for the flag not to touch the ground, but it was against the military (and hence Air Cadet) code of conduct, which means it is very punishable but not by jail or anything, simply as a matter of demerits (in the cadets). In the real military, they probably make you stand out in the rain and do a few thousand push-ups, clean out the latrine, and K.P. duty for a month. I.e. it is purely disiplinary (sp) action that is taken not legal action.


I am not sure, but I assume that “Flag Crimes” could be punished by the brig in the military. They treat adultery and homosexuality differently than the civilians population. (along with a thousand other things)

I would imagine that if a soldier burned the flag he would be at risk of some legal military action, at least an Article 15 IMHO anyway…
I don’t think that it is a law at all about how to handle the flag for civilians, but more of a protocal. There are no official penalties for doing anything you want with the flag, more of a moral responsibility enforced by the perceptions of the people watching you.


If you are handling the flag at a funeral or service with WWII vets who lived and died under the flag, they will judge your whole charachter by how you treat the flag.

If you are at a concert where some chick has it wrapped around waist as a skirt, no one would really care.

Yes, they might through them in the brig, but not for years or anything. There would not be a court marital, for example. The brig is a form of disciplinary action. I don’t think that if during a flag ceremony if you let the flag touch the ground they would lock you up and throw away the key.

U.S. Marines flew the Canadian flag upside down. A terrible breach of foreign relations and protocol. They weren’t thrown in jail.

Ultimately the circumstances would dictate what would actually happen. Burning a flag to denounce a decision by the commander-in-chief might be considered “conduct uncoming”, but that is more because of the open critcism of a superior officer than the actual flag burning although human emotions being what they are there is little doubt that burning the flag would not be a non-factor in such a court martial (at least in the hearts and minds of the jurors and judge).


18 U.S.C. § 700, a law passed in 1989, provides, “Whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.” (emphasis added).

However, the next year, the Supreme Court decided in U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990), that the law was unconstitutional as applied to burning of a flag. If it’s legal to burn a flag, we may safely assume that it’s legal to “maintain one on the floor or ground.”

But don’t do it, anyway. OK? :slight_smile:

  • Rick

I should have read the OP a little better.

The guidelines that surround the handling of the flag are not law, merely guidelines.

  • Rick

One word…


The guidelines about the handling of the US Flag are indeed law.

United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Sec. 8 (Respect for Flag):

Now, I’m neither Amreican nor a lawyer, but all those "should"s look a bit funny to me. British law would generally use “shall” or “may” (the latter when it is purely permissive), but I’ve never seen “should” in a British statute.

Does this mean that the US Code with respect to the Flag is some kind of “advisory” law or something?

The flag code is not law. There are no criminal penalties for failing to abide by the flag code (a fact for which which my neighbors who fly their flag day and night, fair weather or foul, should be grateful).

BTW – there is no penalty in the military for burning a flag. It is, in fact, the only proper way to dispose of a flag that has grown worn or been retired from use.

What? There are other reasons to burna flag?

The best lack all conviction
The worst are full of passionate intensity.

TomH quoted the Flag Code as saying:

The silver half-dollar coins minted between 1917 and 1946 – and the modern Silver Eagle bullion coins – carry an image of Lady Liberty draped in an American flag. Heh. Looks like one branch of the Federal government (the U.S. Mint) has stepped on the toes of another (the military)!

I’ve never understood all this bruhaha over the rahrah rag. What’s it all about, Alfie? What’s the buzz?

What does this rag represent to you?

Spiritus, I may be missing something here, but I assumed that the US Code was law (I’m prepared to be corrected if I’m wrong). As I said, the phraseology looks fishy to me.

The fact that there are no criminal penalties for failing to abide by it does not mean that it is “not law”, it just means that it does not create any criminal offences.


Listen to me now and believe me later. The flag is a, nay, THE symbol of national pride. In my eyes, disrespect shown to the flag is disrespect shown to:

  1. The principles that this country stands for (freedom, democracy, etc)
  2. Everyone who has fought and died to uphold those principles, not to mention your own safety and security.

Disrespect to the flag is, however, a blazing neon sign proclaiming your own ignorance, ego, and shortsightedness. Lots of people burn it, or wear it, or wear it upside-down, or eat it and crap it out, or whatever, because they think that they’re making some kind of statement that they believe that something that the US government is doing is wrong. While defacing the flag is great for shock value, it doesn’t really make any kind of profound point. Debates have never been one by defacing the flag. Laws have neither been passed nor repealed based on the fact that you sewed the flag onto the ass of your pants.

A typical conversation with a flag-defacer:
Me: Hey, why are you doing that?
FD: Because I think the government is wrong about blah blahblah blahblah.
Me: You shouldn’t do that.
FD: Hey, I got my freedom of speech, man.
Me: Hey, your freedom of speech is on fire, man.
FD: No…that’s not what I mean.
Me: Oh, so you’re only burning a part of that flag there. It looks like the whole thing is on fire to me.
FD: No, man, you don’t understand.
Me: I’m sure.

You can see how this goes on. That’s basically every conversation I’ve ever had with flag defacers or advocates of flag defacement. Yet another radical ideal toppled under the crushing force of logic.

I’m sorry, I kind of got off topic there, but flag burning is one thing that really gets my shorts in a bunch. Bottom line: there are ways to express your disapproval of American policy without disrespecting the country on the whole, as well as those who have fought and died for you.

The IQ of a group is equal to the IQ of the dumbest member divided by the number of people in the group.

::standing up and applauding Rousseau::

Alllrighty, then.

Obviously I’m an idiot and a Commie. I choose not to worship symbols.

And that’s what it is. A symbol. It’s all well and good to say that by burning the flag we’re being disrespectful to the country (BFD). But to make a piece of colored cloth into a holy object seems just plain silly to me.

My old man didn’t fight in Vietnam for the flag, he fought for his country. His father didn’t serve in Manila in WW2 for the flag, he served for his country. Their friends and bunkmates didn’t die for the flag. They died for what the flag represented to them.

Sure I’ll upset people if I wear a flag as a diaper. I think it’s silly, but so friggin what? People will get pissed if I throw elephant shit on a picture of God’s mom, too. Are we going to outlaw the defacing of all symbols? What makes the United States more divine that Christianity? Or Islam, or whatever?

Jeannie, no. The rules about flag handling are not subject to criminal enforcement. Ghod willing, they won’t be. And as has been said before, the Girl Sprouts and military can enforce any of their rules any way they please (especially the military).

The burning issue is fairly simple: burning a flag as a protest or for shock value is a no-no. Burning a dirty or worn-out flag to dispose of it is a sign of “respect.” Beats having it lie around in a landfill, I suppose.


A true Commie would never say such a thing. Neither would anyone who fully realizes how fortunate they are to live in this country.

The flag is a symbol. I agree with you. It is a symbol of freedom, democracy, and other tenets that this country was founded upon. It is a symbol of everything that the people you mentioned fought and died for. So when you burn it or use it as a diaper, you are defacing something that is representative of all they have fought and died for. If that doesn’t seem flat-out disrespectful to you, then I don’t know what does.

No, the church can outlaw the defacing of its symbols, and the United States can outlaw the defacing of its symbols. If you choose to be a member of the church, then you respect its symbols and abide by its rules. If you choose to be an American citizen, then you respect its symbols and abide by its rules. But as long as you avail yourself of the benefits of this country (which are numerous), the least you can be asked to do is respect the flag.

I think that burning an old flag to dispose of it doesn’t exactly qualify as defacement.

The IQ of a group is equal to the IQ of the dumbest member divided by the number of people in the group.

So I’m ignorant now as well. Ah well. I guess I need an attitude adjustment–I don’t think we’re the best simply by virtue of being us.

I see your point, but I think it’s a stretch. Firstly, it’s not defacing the nation. It’s disrespectful, yes, but what harm does it do? Burning a flag is in no way equable to bombing the Capitol or committing treason. Hell, even spray-painting the Vietnam memorial is nothing more than petty vandalism.

Secondly, not everyone views the flag as you do, though certainly many do. For many it’s a powerful symbol of sacrifice. For others, it’s a symbol of the trimumphs of a constitutional republic. For others it’s a symbol of Mom and Apple Pie ™. But ya know, for others, it isn’t. In fact, for a lot of people, it’s a piece of cloth.

For the Government to tell me I have to revere an object regardless of my personal feelings borders on thought police. C’mon, doesn’t it make you a little bit concerned that the “Pledge of Allegiance” is first to an object and only secondly to the “Republic for which [the flag] stands?”

Sure. Absolutely it is. That’s why I think burning or defacing a flag is stupid. All it relies on is the value other people place on it–shock value. IMO, only very rarely a viable form of protest.

But so what? Is being disrespectful a crime? Shouldn’t I have the right to offend people’s sensibilities? Hell yes.

Sure. Will it give me a break on my taxes? I already pay for the right to be a member of this society. I work, I pay taxes, I give to charities, I register people to vote. I play by the rules–I don’t brak the law (or at least, when I do I’m prepared to pay the price . . . coff parkingticket coff).
Hell, I’m excited at the prospect of giving all that up in exchange for “respecting the symbols” of the land.

Hey, whle we’re at it, let’s put people in jail for tearing down pictures of the Ayatollah. Oh, oops. That’s a good thing, right? That’s a sign of “freedom.” Damn, now I’m all confused.

Er, yeah. Isn’t that what I said?

Oh, sorry. The quotes around “respect” were probably confusing. I was only saying that incineration (much better than “burning” when we’re talking about disposal) is considered more respectful than other means of disposal, tho I sure don’t know why. Except, as I said, that it’s probably a nicer way of getting rid of the thing than leaving it in the dump in plain view.


See? I knew this would become a debate, even though it was not my intention. Thanks to all of you for answering my question. :slight_smile:

Spiritus wrote:

No and Yes. It is obviously law- Tom H even cited the specific statute. However, the law only establishes the proper standards for treating the American flag, it does not mandate that those standards be observed.

No, the church can outlaw the defacing of its symbols, and the United States can outlaw the defacing of its symbols. If you choose to be a member of the church, then you respect its symbols and abide by its rules. If you choose to be an American citizen, then you respect its symbols and abide by its rules.


The difference is that a church is a private association the enforcement of whose “laws” cannot go beyond asking you to leave the group. The government has the power to impose severe and mandatory punishments for criminal behavior, but the citizens retain some power of their own. The government is obligated to use only secular reasoning in defining what is criminal and not rely on belief systems. Each of us are not here at the pleasure of the “Flag” the way many of our ancestors were of the “Crown”. One of the laws you must abide by is you can’t jail or fine people for buring an American flag.


A symbolic crime calls for a symbolic puinshment. And the government need not get involved because the perfect punishment for a flag burner is…drumroll please…BURN HIM IN EFFIGY!! That’s right. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before? Burn the bum in effigy. In front of his house, in the town square, on TV, on the internet. I sure as heck wouldn’t want that to happen to me, and yet it’s constutional. Problem solved.