The US Flag Code outlines certain guidelines for the use, display, and disposal of the flag. For example, the flag should never be dipped to any person or thing, unless it is the ensign responding to a salute from a ship of a foreign nation. This tradition may come from the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, where countries were asked to dip their flag to King Edward VII: the American flag bearer did not. Team captain Martin Sheridan is famously quoted as saying “this flag dips to no earthly king”, though the true provenance of this quotation is unclear.
A tattered flag at Spokane Valley Police Headquarters, Spokane, Washington
The flag should never be allowed to touch the ground and, if flown at night, must be illuminated. If the edges become tattered through wear, the flag should be repaired or replaced. When a flag is so tattered that it can no longer serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning. The American Legion and other organizations regularly conduct flag retirement ceremonies, often on Flag Day, June 14. (The Boy Scouts of America recommends that modern nylon or polyester flags be recycled instead of burned, due to hazardous gases being produced when such materials are burned.)
Significantly, the Flag Code prohibits using the flag “for any advertising purpose” and also states that the flag “should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use”. Both of these codes are generally ignored, almost always without comment.
One of the most commonly ignored and misunderstood aspects of the Flag Code is section 8, entitled Respect For Flag, which states in part: “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery”, and “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform”. Section 3 of the Flag Code defines “the flag” as anything “by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag of the United States of America”. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Flag Code does discourage the use of the U.S. flag design in fashion, et cetera.
Although the Flag Code is U.S. federal law, there is no penalty for a private citizen or group failing to comply with the Flag Code and it is not widely enforced—indeed, punitive enforcement would conflict with the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Passage of the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment would overrule legal precedent that has been established.