is a term applied to various acts that intentionally deface a flag
, most often a national flag
(though other flags can be defaced as well). Often, such action is intended to make a political point against a country or its policies. Some countries have laws forbidding methods of defacement (such as burning) or forbidding particular uses (such as for commercial purposes); such laws may distinguish between desecration of the country's own national flag
and flags of other countries. Some countries have laws protecting the right to burn a flag as free speech.
Flags can be destroyed by burning or can be defaced with slogans, excrement, etc. Flags can be walked upon, spat upon, or dragged through the dirt. Flags may simply be used unconventionally: they may be hung upside down or reversed (in some countries, however, this is also conventional protocol to indicate a problem). In the United States it may be considered disrespectful not to salute the flag . Toilet paper, napkins, doormats, and other such items may also be manufactured bearing the image of the flag, so that the flag will be defaced in the course of everyday activities. It is increasingly common to see clothing with the image of flags forming a substantial part of the piece. Opinion is split as to whether this is an act of national pride or defacement.
Such actions are undertaken for a variety of reasons:
- As a protest against a country's foreign policy.
- To distance oneself from the foreign or domestic policies of one's home country.
- As a protest at the very laws prohibiting the actions in question.
- As a protest against nationalism.
- As a protest against the government in power in the country, or against the country's form of government.
- A symbolic insult to the people of that country.
- To demonstrate one's rights.
In common usage, the phrase 'flag burning' refers only to burning a flag as an act of protest. However the United States Flag Code states that "the flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning," ideally by an authorized organization with a suitable ceremony accompanying.
According to Austrian law it is illegal to desecrate the flag since any actions vilifying the Austrian state and its symbols (the flag is a symbol) is prohibited by the Austrian flag law. It is also forbidden to desecrate a foreign flag if it is illegal in that foreign country to desecrate the Austrian flag.
Elizabeth O'Shea, an Australian student, burned the Flag of Australia in 2002; she was not charged. In May 2002, several prominent politicians advocated the banning of flag burning, but were rejected by the Prime Minister.
During the 2005 Cronulla riots, a Lebanese-Australian youth, whose name has been kept secret, climbed an RSL club and tore down its flag before setting it on fire. The youth was sentenced to 12 months probation for the destruction of the RSL's property. In October of that year the youth accepted an invitation from the RSL to carry the Australian flag along with war veterans in the Anzac Day march the following year. However, the RSL was forced to withdraw this invitation as it received phone calls from people threatening to pelt the youth with missiles on the day. The head of the New South Wales RSL was quoted as saying that "the people who made these threats ought to be bloody ashamed of themselves".
In 2006, Australian Contemporary artist Azlan McLennan, burnt an Australian flag and displayed it on a billboard outside the Trocadero artspace in Footscray, Victoria. He called the "artpiece" Proudly UnAustralian.
A socialist youth group, Resistance, marketed 'flag-burning kits' - inspired by, and to protest the censorship of Azlan McLennan's art - to university students.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre worker Adam Thompson burned the Australian flag on the week of Australia Day (2008) celebrations in Launceston's City Park to the cheers of about 100 people, who were rallying against what they call "Invasion Day".
Flag desecration is not forbidden by Belgian law. Flemish young people have burned Belgian flags on at least one occasion. .
In 1990, during heated political times around the Meech Lake Accord, the flag of Quebec was desecrated by residents of Brockville, Ontario opposed to Quebec's language laws. Televised images of individuals stepping on the Quebec flag were played in Quebec and contributed to the deterioration in relations between Quebec and English Canada. The incident, seen as a metaphor of Canada's perceived rejection of Quebec (and of Quebec's distinctiveness in the demise of the Meech Lake Accord) was invoked by Quebec nationalists during the run-up to the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence and is still remembered today.
In 2003, Baptists from Canada and the United States staged a flag burning of the Canadian Flag outside of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. This was to protest same-sex marriage that was being decided with the Canadian court system.
It is illegal in Denmark
, under section 110 (e) of the Danish penal code
, to desecrate the flags or national symbols of foreign nations, while legal to burn the Dannebrog
, Denmark's national flag. The Folketing
's reasoning is as follows: the burning of foreign flags falls into the realm of foreign policy
, as the burning of another country's flag could be understood as a threat to that country. The burning of the Dannebrog, on the other hand, does not concern foreign countries, does not fall under foreign affairs, and so remains legal. According to Danish tradition, burning is also the proper way to dispose of a worn flag. According to tradition, care must be observed to ensure that a flag never touches the ground, i.e. even when being disposed of, it should be placed on top of a fire. Flying the flag after sundown is also inappropriate behaviour.
During the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, Danish flags were burned in demonstrations in various Muslim countries.
According to the Faroese
flag law the Faroese flag, Merkið
, may not be desecrated, "neither by words or by deeds"
According to the Finnish flag law it is illegal to desecrate the flag, treat it in disrespecting manner or remove it from a public place without permission.
According to the French law, outraging the French national anthem or the French flag is liable for a fine of €7,500 and 6 months of incarceration if performed in a gathering.
Under German criminal code (§90a StGB) it is illegal to revile the German federal flag as well as any flags of its states. Offenders can be fined or sentenced for a maximum of three years in prison. As for flags of foreign countries, it is illegal to damage or revile them, if they are shown publicly by tradition, event or routinely by representatives of the foreign entity (§104 StGB). On the other hand it is not illegal to desecrate such flags that serve no official purpose (especially including any the one willing to desecrate them brings by himself for that purpose)
In 1999 Ng Kung Siu and Lee Kin Yun were convicted for desecration of the regional flag of Hong Kong
They were found guilty by a magistrate, had the conviction over turned in the High Court but the convictions were restored by the Court of Final Appeal.
They were bound over to keep the peace on their own recognisance of $2,000 for 12 months for each of the two charges.
In the judgement, Chief Justice Andrew Li said although the Basic Law of Hong Kong guarantees freedom of speech, flag desecration is not legal because there are other protest methods.
In 2004 many copies of the proposed new flag for Iraq were burnt (see Flag of Iraq
). There have also been cases of Israeli and American flags being burnt. There were no such examples of burning the current Iraqi national flags, even by political opponents, as both contain the words Allahu Akbar
and such, would be seen as a religious insult.
, desecration of the flag is discouraged by the government, though not illegal. During the 2002 FIFA World Cup
, the Guinness
beverage company was reprimanded by the Irish Government
for selling the Flag of Ireland
with a Guinness logo in the centre of the flag.
, under Chapter 4, Article 92 of the Criminal Code
, any desecration of recognized foreign nation's national flag and symbol to dishonor is prohibited and punishable by fine or penal labor on the complaint by the foreign government. As of 2007
, no complaint had been made by a recognized foreign government. On May 1958
, Flag of the People's Republic of China
at a postage stamp convention was pulled down and damaged, but as Japan did not recognize People's Republic of China at the time, the law was not applied.
However, there has never been a law explicitly prohibiting desecration of Flag of Japan. The act of desecration is thus implicitly protected by Article 21 "Freedom of speech" of Constitution of Japan which also prohibit censorship.
In New Zealand
, under the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act 1981 it is illegal to destroy the New Zealand flag
with the intent of dishonoring it.
In 2003, a Workers Party of New Zealand member Paul Hopkinson, a Wellington schoolteacher, burned the Flag of New Zealand as part of a protest in Parliament grounds at the New Zealand Government’s hosting of the Prime Minister of Australia, against the background of Australia’s support of the United States in its war in Iraq. Hopkinson was initially convicted of destroying a New Zealand flag with intent to dishonor it, but appealed against his conviction.
On appeal, his conviction was overturned on the grounds that the law had to be read consistently with the right to freedom of expression under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. This meant that his actions were not unlawful because they were done in the context of a protest; however, outside of a protest, the same actions would still have been illegal. This somewhat unusual result was due in part to the fact that the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act does not overrule other laws. Hopkinson was the first person charged under the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act. Shortly after his successful appeal, Hopkinson again burned a New Zealand flag and was arrested once more, this time for disorderly conduct. This subsequent charge was later dropped following legal advice that, because of the appeal court's decision, Hopkinson's action would again have been justifiable as a form of free expression or free speech.
During the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy
, Norwegian flags were burned in demonstrations in various Muslim countries.
On January 9
a discussion broke out between Panamanian students and Americans living in the Panama Canal Zone
over the right of the flag of Panama
to be raised next to the flag of the United States
, at this time a contended territory between these nations. During the scuffle a Panamanian flag carried by Panamanian students was torn. This sparked four days of riots that ended with 22 Panamanians and four Americans dead, and with Panama
breaking diplomatic relations with the United States
. This event is considered to be very important in the decision to negotiate and sign the Torrijos-Carter Treaties
, that allowed that the Panama Canal
administration was handed over to the Panamanian Government on December 31
. January 9
is known as Martyrs' Day
and it is commemorated in Panama as a day of mourning.
The precise law in Peru
is unclear, but such acts are clearly capable of causing outrage. "A naked model photographed using Peru's flag
as a saddle while mounted on a horse will face charges that could put her in jail for up to four years for offending patriotic symbols, the country's defence minister said".
Currently, according to article 332nd
of the Penal Code, "Who publicly, by means of words, gestures or print publication, or by other means of public communication, insults the Republic, the Flag or the National Anthem, the coats of arms or the symbols of Portuguese sovereignty, or fails to show the respect they are entitled to, shall be punished with up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to 240 days". In the case of the regional symbols, the person shall be punished with up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to 120 days.
The Portuguese Penal Code (article 323rd) also forbids the desecration of foreign symbols: "Who publicly, by means of words, gestures or print publication, or by other means of public communication, insults the official flag or other symbol of sovereignty of a foreign State or of an international organization of which Portugal is a member shall be punished with up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to 120 days." This article applies under two conditions (article 324th): that Portugal maintains diplomatic relations with the insulted country, and that there is reciprocity (i.e., that the insulted country would also punish any insult against Portuguese symbols of sovereignty, should they occur there).
In Romania, according to the article 236 of the penal code, any manifestation which expresses contempt for the Romanian symbols (according to the constitution, these are the flag, national day, anthem and coat-of-arms) is punished by imprisonment, from 6 months to 3 years, while the contempt for the symbols of Romanian authorities is also punished by imprisonment, from 3 months to 1 year, or by fine.
This law has been seen in a report of the Press Monitoring Agency, a project financed by the Open Society Institute, as being a potential danger to the freedom of expression because of its vague terms, because it can incriminate opinions.
The flag of Saudi Arabia
bears the shahada
or Islamic declaration of faith. Because the shahada
is considered holy, Saudi Arabia's flag code is extremely strict and even the slightest violation amounts to desecration not only of the flag but also of Islam itself. This has led to several incidents of controversy. In 1994, McDonald's
printed carry-out bags bearing the flags of all nations participating in the FIFA World Cup
, while Coca-Cola
did the same on cans of soda. Because of Saudi outrage, the companies stopped producing those items. Also during the FIFA World Cup, in 2002, Saudi officials protested against printing the flag on a football on the belief that kicking the creed with the foot was totally unacceptable.
English, Scottish and Welsh law does not have any concept of "flag desecration", however the law in Northern Ireland has varied since its foundation in 1921. The Union Flag of the United Kingdom and the tricolour of the Republic of Ireland are often defaced or burnt in Northern Ireland as a political provocation or as a protest. The Flags and Emblems Act of 1954 of the Northern Ireland Parliament, effective until repeal in the 1980s, made illegal the display of a flag likely to cause a "breach of the peace" and made it an offence to interfere or threaten to interfere with the display of "a Union flag." More recently, there has been controversy in Northern Ireland over which flags (if any) to fly over government buildings.
The Queen's Colours and Regimental Colours are a very important symbol for a British Army regiment and for many regiments in the Commonwealth which have inherited the British Army's traditions. In a Line Regiment the Colour stand consists of these two flags, and damage to such a symbol would be a considered a great insult to the regiment by its members. In the past, when Colours were carried into battle, the seizure of an enemy Colour or the defence of the regiment's own Colours have ranked among any British regiment's finest moments. Examples include Sergeant Ewart's capture of the French 45th Ligne Eagle standard during the charge of the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo; and the actions of Lieutenants Coghill and Melvill, who were both killed in their failed attempt to save the Queen's Colour at the Battle of Isandlwana, and for which they were awarded Victoria Crosses posthumously.
In the British armed forces, it is usual for flag-bearers to lower flags and standards, even Queen's and Regimental Colours, so that they are draped on the ground, as part of a royal salute or during the two-minute silence on Remembrance Sunday. This mark of respect, known as vailing, is not considered to be a desecration of the colours.
The flag of the United States has sometimes been used in symbolic defacement, often in protest of the policies of the American government, both within the country and abroad.
In 1862, during the Union army's occupation of New Orleans in the American Civil War, the military governor, Benjamin Franklin Butler, sentenced William B. Mumford to death for removing an American flag. Today, defacing a flag is an act of protected speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as established in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), and reaffirmed in U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990).
After these decisions, several "flag burning" amendments to the Constitution have been proposed. On June 22, 2005, a flag burning amendment was passed by the House with the needed two-thirds majority. On June 27, 2006, the most recent attempt to pass a ban on flag burning was rejected by the Senate in a close vote of 66 in favor, 34 opposed, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the amendment to be voted on by the states.
The United States Flag Code lists many guidelines for the use and display of the flag. For example :
- "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform"
- The flag "should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper".
American sports teams often wear an American flag on their uniforms.
The ritualized burning of the American flag is considered an appropriate way to dispose of a damaged or soiled flag. Flags are burned in retirement ceremonies by the American Legion, Girl Scouts of America, Boy Scouts, The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Sons of the American Legion.
Flying an American flag upside down is not necessarily meant as political protest. The practice has its origin in a military distress signal; displaying a flag in this manner is "a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property" ; it has been used by extension to make a statement about distress in civic, political, or other areas. Upside-down flying of the flag was ruled constitutional in Spence v. Washington, a 1974 Supreme Court ruling.
Since the demonstrations against the refusal by the government to renew the broadcasting license of RCTV
(a major TV network), the upside-down flag of Venezuela
has been adopted as a symbol of protest for this and other alleged threats to civil liberties. Demonstrators claim that it is a sign of distress and a call for help. However, government and ruling-party officials insist that these are demonstrators are desecrating the flag, manipulated by the enemies of the people. An official video sharply criticizing this practice as disrespectful and traitorous was produced, and private TV networks have been ordered to transmit it for free . Globovisión
prepended to the video a statement denouncing the message as violative of the Law on Social Responsibility on Radio and Television
, "for constituting anonymous official propaganda".
- "Richard the Lionheart", by J. Gillingham, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1978, p.176.
- "The RUC: A Force Under Fire", by Chris Ryder, London: Mandarin, 1992, p. 82
- BBC: A motion calling for the Union Flag to be flown on Parliament Buildings every day the Northern Ireland Assembly meets has been defeated 6 June 2000
- Finnish flag law in finlex