Understand: Proper American flag etiquette

Vexillologist explains the dos and don’ts

SAN ANTONIO – It’s a sight you probably see often -- American flags altered in honor of fallen officers, military personnel, firefighters or altered for some other reason.

The alteration of an American flag can sometimes lead to a dispute over whether the person or organization altering the flag is disrespecting or breaking the law.

KSAT decided to look into what the U.S. Flag Code states about proper flag etiquette.

Congress passed the Flag Code in 1942.

“Even when it was first enacted in 1942, there was really no penalty. It was the U.S. states that decided to start actually creating legal penalties for breaking the Flag Code, and those kind of popped up over time. And then, until 1990 is when the United States Supreme Court said you cannot be punished for breaking the Flag Code. It is just a guideline. It is not a law,” said Michael Green, a vexillologist, which is someone who studies the usage of flags.

Green said alterations are protected under the First Amendment, which includes freedom of speech.

“The thin blue line flag is an example of altering and changing the flag. So, as outlined by the U.S. Flag Code, it is not allowed. However, like I said, breaking the Flag Code is completely within someone’s First Amendment right,” Green said.

According to the Flag Code, the flag should never be used as apparel, bedding or drapery. It also mentions that no part of the flag should be used for costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be attached to the uniform of military personnel, firefighters, police officers and members of patriotic organizations.

Green said he understands both sides of the argument.

“A flag, like any visual symbol, be it a logo, anything, is really just a symbol that is meant to represent something that the creator decides or what the collective group decides that it means,” Green said.

Ignacio Castilleja, the senior vice commander at VFW Post 76, said the flag holds a special place in his heart, and he hopes people become more interested in learning about the flag.

“There’s 19 or 20 VFWs in San Antonio, all over now in all directions. And I’m quite sure that any commander, or any of his officers or members, will be more than glad to, you know, reserve a night and have the general public come in there, and they can educate those that want to learn about that,” Green said.

About the Authors

Tiffany Huertas is a reporter for KSAT 12 known for her in-depth storytelling and her involvement with the community.

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