United States Flag
The flag of the United States is sometimes symbolically burnt, often in protest of the policies of the American government, both within the country and abroad. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that, due to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is unconstitutional for a government (whether federal, state, or municipality) to prohibit the desecration of a flag, due to its status as "symbolic speech."
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. In 1864 John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the poem Barbara Frietchie, which told of a, probably fictional, incident in which Confederate soldiers were deterred from defacing an American flag. The poem contains the famous lines:
"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.
In 1983, pornographer Larry Flynt was jailed for 6 months for wearing an American flag as a diaper in court.
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.
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.