The Meaning of an Upside Down American Flag

Published on
June 4, 2022 at 9:25:11 AM PDT June 4, 2022 at 9:25:11 AM PDTth, June 4, 2022 at 9:25:11 AM PDT

Traditionally, the meaning of an upside-down American flag has always been that the person displaying the flag in this manner is in grave danger or distress, be it life danger or the danger to their property. Ultimately, the upside-down American flag is typically seen as a signal of dire distress. 

Nowadays, though, you may have heard about instances of flying the Old Glory upside down but the circumstances are not associated with war or immediate danger.  

The U.S. Flag Code  

Let’s first discuss the renowned U.S. Flag Code that defines how the national symbol is to be used. The United States Flag Code was made by representatives of over 68 organizations, led by the National Americanism Commission of the American Legion. The Code was published in 1923 but it took some two decades before Congress adopted the code in 1942.  

The Flag Code suggests, among other things, that the flag should be treated with respect, it should never touch the ground, and it can only be hung upside down in times of great distress or grave danger. Nevertheless, the keyword here is “suggests”. Basically, if one violates one of the rules of the flag code, for instance, if a flag touches the ground while lowering it, there are no fines or penalties for it. As a matter of fact, law enforcement is not active when a person violates the Flag Code.  

To sum up, flying a U.S. flag upside down is considered disrespectful to the national flag of the United States of America unless the person or their property is in extreme danger.  

Upside Down U.S. Flag as Free Expression  

Nowadays, it is rarely heard of the national symbol being flown upside down for any other reason but as a sign of protest and means of free expression.  

The flag is supposed to be an apolitical, national symbol, but there have been instances of flying it upside down as a way of making a political point. Ernie Lamarre, a Brunswick resident, was expressing his view of the state of the nation after the presidential elections in 2021, as well as the situation regarding the Black Lives movement and the abortion laws.   

Similarly, Bowdoinham resident Gregg McNally flew his 13-star upside down to protest the 2016 presidential elections results.  

Has Anyone Been Arrested for Flying the Flag Upside Down?  

While it is said the U.S. Flag Code violations do not lead to penalties, practice says otherwise.  

For instance, in 2007, a man was arrested in Pennsylvania for flying the flag upside down in front of his home. Joseph Yamrus was disappointed with the Middle East policy of some Congress members. In protest, he decided to fly the Old Glory upside down to express his distress over the current attitude towards the war in Iraq. 

However, Yamrus’ neighbor was not aware that this act was a sign of protest and called the local police about the incident. As a result, the local police officer instructed Yamrus to either fly it properly or to hoist it down, saying it was illegal to do so under Pennsylvania law. Since Yamrus refused to do so, he was arrested.   

Nevertheless, the charges were dropped after contacting the local magistrate. 

What About the Rest of the World? 

Flying the flag upside down, and not just a national one, but any flag is considered a clear sign of distress and a cry for immediate help.

On the other hand, there have been instances of using the flag as a sign of protest, like in the recent "Freedom Convoy" protest against COVID-19 public health mandates, when the Canadian flag was turned upside down.  

What is the Meaning of the Upside-down American flag?  

Apparently, one has to think twice today when being reactive to the latest news, which is often spread by social media. Perhaps someone is simply signaling their lives are in danger, or they simply wish to express concern and protest about certain events which are not directly or personally life-threatening.  

For some, flying the flag upside down on a flagpole is a kind of free expression. Yet, for the others, especially if they have served in the army, flying the national symbol upside down in order to express an attitude is considered utterly disrespectful. 

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