When activist Abbie Hoffman wore his American flag shirt back in the 1960s people were shocked. He was even arrested and charged for "mutilating the American flag." Oh how times have changed. Today, putting the American flag on t-shirts, in advertisements, and even on napkins is considered the height of patriotism. But technically, many of these things are still illegal. At least on paper.
According to the U.S. Code, disrespect for the flag includes dozens of things that Americans will commonly be doing this 4th of July weekend.
Just a few examples:
- The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.
- The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, 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.
Flag desecration laws were often enforced until the landmark Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson in 1989 declared flag burning to be protected speech. Even just wearing the flag on a shirt or using it in advertising was considered the height of disrespect and a punishable offense.
From a 1972 article in the Washington University Law Quarterly:
Individuals have been prosecuted for wearing the flag as a vest, a shirt, a poncho, a cape, and for publishing depictions of the flag used to cover the private parts of an otherwise nude female.
But there is the question of whether the Johnson case only protects flag desecration as a form of political protest. Technically, not only might those American flag napkins seem disrespectful, in some cases they could still be considered illegal. People all over the country are still being prosecuted under flag desecration laws.
Strangely enough, shouting "President Obama is a dunderhead!" before using an American flag napkin to wipe the ketchup from your jowls is probably safer than saying nothing at all while you mop that slop.
Nearly every legislative session since the Texas v. Johnson decision, somebody introduces a flag protection bill in the House. Sometimes they even try to make it an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. With most legislators recognizing that this isn't exactly a huge problem and has major free speech implications, the bill has never gotten very far.
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Images: Flags displayed on cupcakes as Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory campaigns during a GOP barbecue in Greenville, N.C. in 2012 via Associated Press; Abbie Hoffman wearing an American flag shirt in 1968 via Associated Press