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Signing flags

Last modified: 2002-03-15 by phil nelson
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Someone asked me an interesting question concerning (US) flag etiquette: "Is it considered defacing property if you "sign" a flag? With all that is going on w/the USA tragedy, would it be considered defacing property if elementary students (grades K-5) signed a flag to send to a local firefighter who went to New York to help in the 9/11 recovery efforts. We would like to have 300 students sign their names on a flag to present to this firefighter as their token of appreciation for being our "hometown hero"."

I honestly don't know US law on this (it is not "desecration" by any means), though it seems like a nice gesture. Frankly I suggested that they not do it if the fireman in question would be offended by it, but to go ahead if he's not. Al Kirsch, 23 September 2001

This "defacing property" bit sounds like some legal term. If it is, I expect it applies to modifying the look of an other person's property. I wouldn't expect this to apply, since I take it the firefighter doesn't yet own the flag when its being autographed.

Where the rule of not writing on a flag (different from the rule not to add lettering to a flag design) in concerned: I see the strict rule of not writing on the flag as a product of its time: The high ideals of the start of the new century (now the old century). Nowadays such rules probably are strictly valid only in closed groups (like the military), with the practice in society being much more varied. For one thing, in the USA, a separate use of flags can be noticed where flags or flag images on e.g. walls are used as a field for images etc.. That in itself is no disrespect to the flag, it's a recognition that the flag stands for the USA and it is used as such. Of course, the image itself could be disrespectful, but that's a different matter.

I guess, the same holds for these autographs. Indeed, some of those wall-flags were used in the last week to display a message of grief or of hope, collecting the autographs of all who supported them. So whether the message is just "We're all proud to be American!", or whether a message is actually written on the flag, collectively autographing a flag has become a way to add meaning to the flag, rather than take meaning away from it.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 23 September 2001

I guess that I may be considered part of a group that "might feel stricter", though I wouldn't say that my military training would have anything to do with it (over here the flag issue in military is much different). But, anyway - in many vex-books one may find, if I am no much mistaken, a notion that writing (or otherwise adding anything) on a national flag is not considered best custom. This being variously observed in different parts of world and in different time - from ignoring it to entirely mystifying the untouchable nature of the flag.

In many legislation (and flag codes and whatever) regarding national (and subnational) flags, there is found a provision that prescribes that the flag should be "as determined here, and nothing should be added or omitted" sometimes also adding "except in conditions prescribed by law" (allowing e.g. for military and rank flags to be derived from the national flag).

A flag is a finished "item" and should not be adorned additional and "overburdened" with additional symbolsim and meanings. After all, the vexillological theory (and practice) knows a perfectly acceptable, nice and decorative mode how such additional meaning could be attached - these include cravattes and flag streamers.

A delicately produced streamer or cravatte, possibly with embroidered (main) inscriptions and with hundreds of signatures might be a better way of solviong the initial question from which this debate started then writing on the flag itself. That would maybe imply that the flag should also be equipped with a flag-staff, but not necessarily.

I was not planning to write this, but it seemed to me that there is no one that yet objected to the idea of writing on the flag at all in this discussion (maybe I overlooked something, though) and it seemed to me that the "general" view of the vexillological circles would be exactly against writing.
Zeljko Heimer, 24 Septemeber 2001>/P>

Implicite in my description, since I didn't realize it at the time, is that the flag will not be flown. Why? Because it is unlikely that anyone would consider a flag with 300 autographs a good approximation of *the* Stars and Stripes. There's a flag showing the American Eagle breaking through the S&S. In the image pieces of the S&S break away where the eagle has caused a hole, and since those pieces are turned, you see part of their backside. It's not the reverse of the flag what you see there, but rather, the "other side" of a wall. In other words: That flag is not meant for flying at all (even if German campers use it as such), but for hanging on a wall. Swedish sports fans tend to write "Go, Sweden, Go"-type messages on the level arms of the cross of their flag. But they use this flag to hang it over the railing of the stands.

In a way, in all cases the flag is used, not as a flag, but as a background that will strengthen the message in the foreground. In a way they're not flags at all; they just use the same design.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 26 September 2001

I would suggest that the propriety of adding words or anything else to a flag varies according to local custom--sometimes manifested in the form of law. Proposing universal rules on the subject, as both Peter Hans and Zeljko did in somewhat different ways, seems to me to be fraught with peril.

As to the vexillological prejudice against writing as part of the design of a flag, I would argue that the merits depend on what the writing says, what it looks like, where the flag is from, and what the flag is for. An embroidered military color is not harmed by inscribing battle honors, mottoes, unit designations, etc. The Islamic and Far Eastern traditions of calligraphy as forms of high art suggest that the shahada on the Saudi flag should be assessed differently from the "In God we trust" inscribed on the new Georgia flag, even though the substantive sentiment is similar. There's even a distinction to be made between a banner of arms of Karlsruhe, Germany (gules, on a bend or the motto in letters sable, "Fidelitas") and a hypothetical red flag with a yellow diagonal band inscribed "Karlsruhe."

It is noteworthy that the US Flag Code cited in this country to ban writing on the US flag is, according to its own preambular language, a codification of customary practices. It is not something that was deduced from abstract first principles.
Joe McMillan, 26 September 2001

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