Is flying the U.S. flag upside down illegal? Here’s what the Supreme Court has to say

Is displaying an upside down U.S. flag legal in Texas?

This was a question recently asked by a poster on Reddit Fort Worth who snapped a photo of an upside down flag flying below a blue MAGA banner.

“Isn’t that like illegal?,” the poster asked.

Technically, flying the flag upside down is not desecration of Old Glory but, according to the U.S. Flag Code, a “signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”

Rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court have rendered moot the guidance from the flag code.

A post on Reddit shows an upside down flag in Texas.
A post on Reddit shows an upside down flag in Texas.

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U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on the flag and the right to expression

In extreme cases, such as the burning of the flag, the Supreme Court has ruled, twice, that desecrating the nation’s flag is protected expression by the First Amendment.

In the first case, Texas v. Johnson, Gregory Lee Johnson burned a flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. Johnson was arrested for breaking a Texas law, fined $2,000 and sentenced to a year in prison. His case went to the high court that affirmed a reversal of the original verdict by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,” wrote Justice William Brennan, citing the Texas v. Johnson case.

In response, Congress passed an anti-flag burning law in 1989 that the Supreme Court struck down a year later in United States v. Eichman as unconstitutional.

An upside down flag: A prop for protests or signal for help

Many see the inversion of the flag as a sign of disrespect, but it has traditionally been used as a call for help by individuals and groups. Sailors have used it to signal their vessel is in trouble. It is a widely employed method to signal for help.

More recently, it has been used by protesters from both ends of the ideological divide to show their displeasure — from activists protesting the end of national abortion rights to the war in Iraq to hordes of Donald Trump supporters breaching the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021..

“That was the most powerful way for me to display my distress over the continuation of the war in Iraq,” said Donald Vance during an anti-war protest in Modesto, California, in 2000.