Sunday, July 20, 2008

The rules of the flag

At a tag sale at the Swedish Church in New York one year, I noticed an American flag at the corner of a table.

"Look," I said to my friend, pointing toward the flag. "They are selling American flags!"

A lady at the table overheard me and said something that sounded similar to "Ehmpf." I looked at her and she pointed toward a Swedish flag at the opposite corner of the table.

"So?" I said.

"We are selling Swedish flags," the lady explained. "By law, we cannot display another country's flag unless we also display an American flag in a similar or more prominent manner."

My friend and I laughed it off and walked away. "This woman is crazy!" we thought. Turns out that there is, in fact, such a law.

"No person shall display the flag of the United Nations or any other national or international flag equal, above, or in a position of superior prominence or honor to, or in place of, the flag of the United States at any place within the United States or any Territory or possession thereof."

In many countries, this would be a violation of freedom of speech. (Another blog post may follow on how America is NOT - despite popular belief - the freest democracy in the world).

All countries have some sort of rules for how to handle flags - when and where they are to be displayed, how they are to be carried, folded, risen, removed or disposed of. Most countries also have laws forbidding the burning of flags - the nation's own or another nation's flag.

In Denmark, for example, it is illegal to burn a foreign flag, but it is perfectly fine to burn the Danish flag, called Dannebrog. The reasoning goes that the burning of a foreign nation's flag could be seen as a threat to that country and could therefore violate foreign policy.

The only Swedish flag law I can find dictates the appropriate blue and yellow colors and the size of the flag. There are also guidelines for what days - clearly marked in the calendar (special family holidays are also allowed) and hours the flag can be displayed - it has to come down at 9 p.m. Unless the country is at war. Then the flag can be displayed all night.

One final note about flags: A friend and former teacher of mine was proudly showing off her Swedish flag on her shiny new flag pole when Albie and I came to visit last fall. Her explanation: "We must display the flag when royalty is here - Prince Albert and Queen Viktoria."

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