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Refresher Course: What's up with those flags in the news?

U.S. Flag over Manchester, NH. Gaby Lozada photo.
Gaby Lozada
U.S. Flag over Manchester, NH. Gaby Lozada photo.

Every other Tuesday, the team behind Civics 101 joins NHPR’s All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa to talk about how our democratic institutions actually work.

Civics 101 host Nick Capodice joins us this week to talk about flags, the history behind some of the flags we’ve seen on the news recently and what they mean today. Specifically, we take a look at the two flags flown at the residences of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito; an upside down flag and an “Appeal to Heaven” flag.


What are the laws regarding flags in the U.S? What’s allowed and what is not?

Well legally, when it comes to flags, Julia, everything is allowed. You can fly any flag you want. The Supreme Court has also ruled you can burn any flag you want.

Now, as to what you should do with an American flag, the U.S. Flag Code became law in the 1940s. And, you know, you're not going to go to jail or be fined for breaking the U.S. Flag Code, because most Americans break it on a daily basis. But on to the flag code rules. First, you should not have the American flag on clothing or bedding. You should never, ever wear it. And my personal favorite, it should never be used in any advertising whatsoever. And finally, you should never hang it upside down unless you are in significant danger or distress. The upside-down American flag was used to indicate that a ship was sinking or it was under attack. Nowadays, the upside-down flag is a way to say ‘I am not happy,’ or ‘I think the country is in trouble.’

A lot of the flags flown today were created in the 1700s. The flags are physically the same, but their meanings have changed. How does that happen?

Well, that's like at the crux of the whole thing, Julia. That is why it's important that a Supreme Court justice had these two flags at their residences. Because a flag is all about historical context. You cannot separate a flag from its context.

Let me give you an example. The General Lee battle flag, which we now refer to just as the Confederate flag. Its biggest resurgence in modern history was immediately after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education 50 years ago. So if you flew that flag at that time, you weren't saying, ‘I just like history.’ You were making a statement about desegregation.

Now, the Appeal to Heaven flag—it's a green pine tree on a white background, and it has those words on it. This flag was largely forgotten about, and it was flown in various flag collections. Until a pastor named Dutch Sheets, he's a pastor for a group that openly advocates for Christian dominion over all, Sheets reappropriated it. He used it as the symbol for a nationwide tour that he gave. This tour was in direct response and opposition to marriage equality legislation and abortion rights legislation that was happening in 2015, 2016. This flag was then flown at the insurrection on January 6th.

How do we decipher the messages in flags? How should we?

I like to think of it kind of like posters on a college dorm room, they're not unlike that. They're not unlike the clothing we wear or the signs we have in our yards. Flags are a strong graphical language, and the owner of the flag has chosen to display that language. And this goes back to the very beginning, flags are a way to communicate with people without words. They can show pride. They can show anger. They can be a secret handshake, sort of a way to say, ‘I'm with you, come over here’ or ‘stay away from me, you're not welcome.’ You can make an inference due to context, but there's no way to decipher the exact meaning of a flag without speaking with the displayer of it.

Again, you can fly any flag you want in the U.S. That's some tried and true First Amendment stuff right there. But freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences or freedom from questions. So as a personal deep lover of vexillology, of the study of flags, I just hope that people are more willing to talk honestly about their reasons for flying a specific piece of fabric.

Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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