With Puerto Rico in ruins and North Korea’s president, Kim Jon-un, seemingly ready to hit the “strike” button, it might seem like the wrong time to give Donald Trump a down-and-dirty history lesson about flag etiquette and the esteemed U.S. Flag Code. But nothing bothers me more than manners faux pas and misremembered history (except an island in tatters and a world on the verge of extinction.) Of course, these lessons have everything to do with the current epidemic of “kneeing” taking place across the NFL before and during the national anthem. Former San Francisco Giants quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the “Patient Zero” of this viral phenomena, originally said his action was a silent protest about the treatment of Americans of color. But the noise around this issue has grown deafening, especially regarding what is considered right and proper when it comes to respecting the flag.
In this, the president has been front and center, and largely in a corner by himself, in protesting that “when somebody disrespects our flag… that son of a b*tch” should be taken off the field, stat. “Out.” And, oh yes, “fired.”
As a manners expert, I’ve had to pass the required course on “flag etiquette,” which is actually more complicated than you might think. Of all the etiquette mavens — past and present — the late Amy Vanderbilt (in her “guide to gracious living”) detailed the do’s and don’ts of “The Flag and Our National Anthem” in OCD perfection. With over seven pages of instruction, Vanderbilt lists the “major regulations” concerning “the display of the flag,” positing that many of us “do not realize that there are definite rules concerning the proper display of the flag to protect it from desecration.” Mr. President, are you paying attention?
I’ll run through a handful of them here quickly: Never fly it upside down except when a sign of distress. Don’t ever let it touch the ground or get in the water. Taking the wetness principle one step further, lower it promptly if it rains (although an exception was later made for “all-weather flags.”) Other flags can’t be flown above ours, but don’t make the mistake of ever placing another flag to the right of the stars and stripes. I do not know why that is the case, but it’s on page 629 of Vanderbilt’s tome.
Although many people think that advice givers — such as Vanderbilt, Emily Post and myself — make up our rules, that’s not the case, and in this instance flag etiquette is derived from the U.S. Flag Code, also known as U.S. Code Title 4 Chapter 1. In case it’s not clear, Title 4 Chapter 1 is a federal law. The law also makes clear that the stars and stripes should never “be used for any advertising purpose”— although the president (like most politicians) violated that rule with impunity in the recent election as any Google search of “Trump, election, American flag” will reveal. Of course, other pols aren’t making the case that kneeling is disrespecting the flag.
Speaking of the president and the flag, John Oliver reminded us this week of an October appearance by Trump where he bear-hugged the American flag. “OK, putting aide the free-speech implications there, how is kneeling in front of a flag more disrespectful to it than grinding it against your gnarled old boner?” remarked Oliver. In one of the photos (not the one above) I noticed that Trump is also in violation of the edict not to place another flag to the right of the stars and stripes. Gotcha, Mr. President. But that’s not a reason to fire you.
One more thing about the Flag Code: It also prohibits use of it as part of “a costume or athletic uniform.” If you’ve ever been near an Old Navy around the Fourth of July, eyed online retailer’s Bonobos’ stars and stripes shorts, or watched any U.S. team compete in the Olympics, you know that particular stipulation is routinely ignoredOK, putting aide the free-speech implications there, how is kneeling in front of a flag more disrespectful to it than grinding it against your gnarled old boner, without presidential apoplexy, because it’s good for business.
What may surprise the president and many Americans is this: Nowhere is it codified that Americans must stand, salute, or cross our hearts out of respect to the American flag. Nor is there any language that makes it a criminal offense to disobey the guidelines. “Can you be fired?” I asked David Cole, the ACLU’s legal director. He replied: “There are no consequences if one chooses to ignore the flag code.”
Still, the president insisted in a tweet, “you know what, it’s still totally disrespectful [not to salute or stand for the flag].” That’s his opinion, which he’s certainly entitled to as an American, but I fear that he’s forgotten the constitutional history class about our right to actually burn the American flag. Back in 1968, when young Donald was avoiding the military, anti-Vietnam protests regularly featured the burning of U.S. flags. No surprise, given the tenor of the times, that was also the year that Congress approved the “Federal Flag Desecration Law,” which made it illegal to “knowingly” mutilate, deface, or burn the flag.
Bu wait. All that changed in 1990, when the Supreme Court struck down the law and upheld the right of protestors to burn the flag as expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. A year earlier, in a related flag case overturning a similar Texas law, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan had written: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Still in November, the president tweeted that flag burners should perhaps be punished by “loss of citizenship or year in jail.”
If the Supreme Court says we can’t coerce speech in politics or religion, then surely we can’t coerce it in sports. The polite—and right― response, Mr. President, is to let the NFL players and owners take a knee, or sit it out, as they wish – as long as they don’t chew gum while doing so.
Agree or disagree with me? Let me know in the comments section below. Follow me @stevenpetrow