Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, June 12, 2005
by Susan Ives

While boning up on flag etiquette for the Peace Center’s annual flag washing ceremony, I had a startling insight: every day millions of people deface the U.S flag. You’ve probably done it yourself and I bet you’re about to do it again.

Here’s what it says in Section 8g of the U.S. Flag Code: “The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.”

Now mosey on over to your stash of office supplies and rummage around until you find a stamp. You have a flag stamp, don’t you? Words and figures, stamped right on the flag. And when the post office stamps ink all over the flag when it applies the postmark? Tell me that’s not defacement in violation of Section 8g!

I’m relieved that stamps now have an adhesive backing. In the bad old days when they were smeared with glue, folks had to spit on the flag to stick their stamps to the envelopes. Spitting on the flag is bad, very bad.

Here’s another one: Section 8d: “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel.”

You might remember the photograph of former President Bush in College Station last March, when he was handing out certificates to newly-minted citizens and showing off his “American flag jacket lining,” as the Immigration and Naturalization Service press release described it, for the cameras.

Here’s the new quiz question on the naturalization exam:

    How do we honor the U.S. flag? (circle all that apply)
    flying it on a flagpole on Memorial Day
    Saluting it as it passes in a Fourth of July parade
    Cutting it into little pieces and sewing it into the lining of your Brooks Bros. blazer

If you lick a flag stamp or follow the Bush family fashion statement and cut Old Glory up into little pieces to uses as a jacket lining, the FBI is not going to haul you off to Guantanamo for interrogation. The worst that will happen is that some former Girl Scout (me, for instance) will solemnly chide you for a flagrant breach of flag etiquette.

Do you actually plan to use that flag napkin to wipe mustard off your face at the 4th of July picnic? (Section 8i, “the flag should not be “impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.”)

Please tell me that’s not a flag flapping from your car antenna? (Section 7b, “When the flag is displayed on a motorcar, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.”)

I spoke to a woman a few weeks ago who told me she was planning on burning a few flags on Flag Day, June 14th. Bad, bad woman, you say.

Not at all. She’s in her 80s and the flag burning is being sponsored by her VFW Auxiliary. It’s the right way to dispose of a damaged flag (section 8k, “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”)

Once again, Congress is considering a constitutional amendment to make desecrating the flag a crime, in bills introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in April and Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-CA) a few weeks ago.

Bad idea. Desecration is in the intent, not in the act, and intent is one of those areas clearly protected as free speech under the First Amendment.

You may burn a flag as an act of protest, or an act of honor. Those who mop up the mustard spill with a flag-embossed napkin or cut up the Star – Spangled Banner to make a lining for a blazer are, in fact, desecrating the flag in a misguided attempt to express patriotism. It’s not the government’s job to determine what lies in people’s hearts. The Girl Scout can chide them; the government should not arrest them.

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