Flags of our hotheads

November 19, 2008

Remember Greg Townsend, the Decatur hothead who flew the American flag upside down outside his tire shop in protest of Barack Obama’s win? He has come to the attention of James Taranto, who compiles Best of the Web for The Wall Street Journal. Tranto is not persuaded by Townsend’s argument that he was flying a “distress signal” as described in statutes governing the flag:

This is an improper use of the flag. As one USA Flag Site contributor notes, Section 8(a) of the U.S. Flag Code states: “The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”

Even if one grants Townsend’s claim that legal abortion and the bailout pose a danger to life and property, they clearly do not represent an extreme danger but an ordinary one–one that predates (and in the case of abortion, predates by more than 35 years) the election of Barack Obama. Further, a lawful election is not an occasion for “dire distress,” and no one seeing Townsend’s upside-down flag is in a position to save the lives or property he believes are in jeopardy.

Greg Townsend is not signaling distress, merely expressing an opinion. The U.S. Constitution guarantees his right to do so, including by misusing the flag. If burning the flag is protected by the First Amendment, surely so is the lesser insult of displaying it improperly.

It is disrespectful of the flag, but so is using it in advertising and putting it on T-shirts, if to a lesser degree. It’s no more a constitutional crisis than putting “In God We Trust” on license plates. I wouldn’t patronize Townsend’s tire shop even if I lived in Decatur, and I doubt I would like talking to him. He claims to be a patriot and probably is, but he doesn’t really understand what patriotism means. That flag is the symbol of everything this country stands for, including the peaceful transfer of power he finds so distasteful this time around. Don’t mess with the flag.

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