Displaying Our Flag and
The Midday Rotary Flag Lease Program
By Susan M. Halpern
Former Addison Councilmember (1992-1999)
The Addison Midday Rotary has embarked on a flag leasing program designed to promote patriotism and to raise some money for the charitable work that is at the core of the organization. For $60 per year, Rotary volunteers will place flags on the property of Addison residents for several important holidays. The flags are then retrieved and stored until the next holiday. The first round of the program occurred in connection with Memorial Day, and it was wonderful to see all the flags on display in our neighborhood.
Let me start here. Because my family lived overseas and traveled extensively when I was young, I developed a deep love of my country at a very early age. So much so that I refrained from having a passport for many years, because I felt no need to be anywhere else but here in the United States of America. That has changed, and I have since traveled abroad, taking my love of country with me. I was moved to tears when I stood with fellow Americans at the U.S. Olympic House in Sochi, Russia, watching a gold medal ceremony during which our flag was raised on Russian soil, with our anthem being played. I was also privileged to be in Vancouver, British Columbia, where I watched the U.S. Women’s soccer team win the World Cup. I was the one reminding any number of my proud countryman who were taking photos with flags that they must not allow the flags to touch the ground. My respect for all that our flag represents is very, very deep.
Given all this, I was astonished to hear that Addison’s former mayor and his girlfriend are now trying to stir up controversy over the Rotary Flag Lease Program. The girlfriend went so far as to post notes on some residences, seeming to target participants in the Rotary Flag Lease Program, claiming that they were being disrespectful because they were displaying the flag at night. These accusations are inappropriate on many levels.
First, let’s focus on our flag. The United States Code contains provisions relating to the time and occasion for displaying our flag, colloquially known as the “Flag Code.” Most significantly for purposes of our discussion, the Flag Code is advisory only and not mandatory, a position confirmed by both the Eleventh and Fifth Circuits (the Fifth encompasses Texas). See, Dimmit v. Clearwater, 985 F.2d 1565, 1573 (11th Cir. 1993) (“[T]he district court properly dismissed the City’s counterclaim alleging violations of the United States Flag Code on the ground that the Flag Code is merely advisory and is not intended to proscribe behavior.”); Holmes v. Wallace, 407 F. Supp. 493 (M.D. Alabama 1976) (“An examination of the flag code section of Title 36 as a whole leads to the conclusion that §§ 173-178, as well as the associated §§ 170-173, are not intended to proscribe conduct but are merely declaratory or advisory.”) (affirmed without opinion, 540 F.2d 1083 (5th Cir. 1976)).
Bearing in mind that the Flag Code is advisory only, let’s look at the applicable provision:
“It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.”
4 U.S.C. §6(a). Note the phrase “properly illuminated,” that’s the key. The question is, what does it mean? Unfortunately, neither the Flag Code nor the case law define this term. However, there are other sources that provide guidance. For example, the American Legion interprets “proper illumination” to include a light source sufficient to illuminate the flag so that it is recognizable as such by a casual observer. Taking that language, it is easy to see that Addison’s many neighborhoods comply, as flags displayed are illuminated by many sources of light, including street lights, porch lights, and ambient light. Stated simply, there is no question that the flags put in place by the Rotary are readily recognizable by “casual observers” even during the night, and thus are “properly illuminated” as suggested (not required) by the Flag Code. The displays of the flags are thus appropriate and respectful.
I found another interesting anecdote when researching this issue. In 1970, a disabled veteran wrote President Nixon regarding a display of patriotism evidenced by flying the U.S. Flag on a 24-hour basis until the Vietnam War ended. His letter was given to Major General Kenneth G. Wickham, the Adjutant General of the Department of the Army for response. General Wickham wrote:
“Those who fly the flag day and night should insure that it is made of material strong enough to withstand such wear and that it is replaced promptly when it begins to show signs of wear. While it would appear appropriate to illuminate the flag after sunset so that passerby will be aware of its display, the Code does not require that it be illuminated and its display without illumination is not considered an impropriety.”
The General thus suggested that no illumination at all is necessary.
And, of course, no discussion of the flag would be complete without an acknowledgement that its treatment can implicate First Amendment considerations. In Tex. v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989) the Supreme Court affirmed the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ reliance on the First Amendment in overturning a conviction for burning a U.S. flag. This case reminds us that freedom of speech and expression sometimes subject us to things we find distasteful or with which we disagree. That is the nature of the First Amendment: I may not like what you say, but I must respect and defend your right to say it.
In the end, the key issue for me is respect for the flag of our country. In my view, the Rotary Flag Lease Program is all about respect for our flag, including the decision that the flags leased for display by residents are “properly illuminated” as suggested by the Flag Code and as interpreted by many organizations, including the American Legion. But more to the point of this discussion, my right as an American is to display our flag consistent with my own beliefs and principles, and my right in that regard must be respected. The former mayor and his girlfriend are not the “flag police.”
And that brings me to my second point, which is to cut to the chase regarding what this is really about. The fact is that Addison’s former mayor and his sycophant supporters have spent significant time unjustifiably attacking former City Manager Ron Whitehead, despite Ron’s many years of service as Addison’s City Manager and otherwise in our community. And, because Ron is a member of the Addison Midday Rotary, the attacks have extended to this group. So, make no mistake about it: the efforts to undermine the Midday Rotary Flag Lease Program by falsely suggesting that the flags are being improperly displayed is simply more of the same personally-motivated vitriol to which Addison was subjected for six years. Doing so in an effort to harm a charitably-directed initiative is inexplicable.
The Addison Midday Rotary group has as its fundamental mission the performance of good deeds and good works. Its members contribute money and their time to many good causes. The Midday Rotary’s Flag Lease Program is designed to fund contributions to our community via the work of the Midday Rotary group. It is an effort that should be encouraged and supported, not attacked and undermined.
The flags displayed in our neighborhood filled my patriotic heart. My flag was displayed with a deep love of my country and respect for all those whose sacrifice made my freedom possible. If you agree, join the program, and join your neighbors in a proud and respectful display of our flag.
If you would like to participate, let us know here at Truth in Addison, and we’ll put you in touch with the fine folks who have dedicated their time and efforts to this wonderful project.