April 10, 2023

At Attention! Proper Flag Etiquette

The American flag is a “living symbol” of our nation. Its care and handling are part of honoring our country’s past, present, and future. As we approach holidays, including Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Independence Day, sometimes a refresher on proper flag etiquette is helpful. Do you and your city employees know the proper way to treat the U.S. flag? 

Read the U.S. Flag Code. 

The Federal Flag Code says the universal custom is to display the U.S. flag from sunrise to sunset on buildings and stationary flagstaffs in the open, but when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness. Also, the U.S. flag should not be displayed when the weather is inclement except when an all-weather flag is displayed. 

Kentucky League of Cities Business & Economic Development Specialist Sarah Stoll is an expert in military protocol, having served as a protocol officer in the Department of Defense at the Pentagon as well as assistant manager of Blair House, the president’s guest house.

She said the most important thing to remember about the flag is its significance to our nation. 

“Per U.S. code, the flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living being. Therefore, it should be treated as such and taken care of as a living thing,” Stoll said. 

There are a few simple things to remember when handling the U.S. flag.


  • Display the flag at peak, above any other flag. 
  • Position the flag on a platform or stage above and behind the speaker.
  • If mounted on a staff, it should be to the speaker’s right. 
  • Go right – When displayed on a wall with another flag (such as the Commonwealth of Kentucky flag), the U.S. flag should be on the right, its right, and the viewer’s left. Its staff should be in front of the other flag. 
  • Go left – When displayed other than on a staff, the flag should be displayed flat, whether indoors or outdoors. It should be displayed with the union (stars) to the upper left whether vertical or horizontal. 
  • Fly the flag at half-staff when appropriate. On special days, as deemed by the president of the United States, the flag may be flown at half-staff, primarily to recognize the death of principal U.S. figures or members of the military. A governor may also order the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff at state facilities for similar reasons. On Memorial Day, the U.S. flag should be flown at half-staff until noon and then raised.

Do Not

  • Let the flag touch the ground. 
  • Fly the flag upside down unless there is an emergency. 
  • Carry the flag flat or carry things in it. 
  • Use the flag as clothing, decoration, or cover. 
  • Store the flag where it can get dirty. 
  • Fasten it or tie it back. Always allow it to fall free. 
  • Draw on or otherwise mark the flag.

Does the mayor have the authority to order the flag at half-staff? Many times, cities lower flags to honor a fallen public servant such as a police officer, firefighter, or current/former mayor. Technically speaking, only the United States president or a state governor may order a flag at half-staff. However, the Kentucky governor’s website states that the flag code serves as a guide to be followed on a purely voluntary basis to ensure proper respect for the flag and that the flag code has no provision for enforcement.

At the Kentucky Capital, the flag is always lowered to half-staff on the following days:

  • Peace Officers Memorial Day: May 15 – half-staff from sunrise to sunset, except when Peace Officers Memorial Day falls on Armed Forces Day (third Saturday in May)
  • Memorial Day: Last Monday in May – the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon
  • Patriot Day: Sept. 11 – half-staff from sunrise to sunset
  • National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day: Dec. 7 – half-staff from sunrise to sunset

By the way, the proper term is “half-staff.” “Half-mast” refers to flags flown over a body of water. 


According to most sources, the crest at the flagstaff’s head on which the flag is displayed should be an American eagle. According to an American Legion source, the flagstaff topping ornaments are not subject to any restrictions under the flag code. As with many of the traditions and customs associated with the display of the flag, the standard flagstaff topping ornaments in common use come from the assortment allowed by military regulations. These include the eagle, acorn, gilt lance, ball, gilt star (Navy), spear, or flat truck (Navy). Most commonly used and encountered is the eagle. 

For the Commonwealth of Kentucky flag, the crest at the flagstaff's head should be Kentucky’s state bird, the cardinal. It may be cast in brass, bronze, or another appropriate material, and the cardinal must be in a restful but alert pose.

Flag Disposal 

Some cities have flag disposal boxes for the public. When the time comes to retire a flag, there is a proper procedure to use. When an American flag is worn beyond repair, it should be retired respectfully, preferably by burning. Learn more information on flag disposal. How to Properly Dispose of an American Flag - National Flag Foundation

Having lived and worked around the world, Stoll said, “To me, the flag means home. When I would see our flag flying over embassies, it always took me home.”
“You want to protect and take care of your home,” she said. “And the same is true for the flag.”

Note: Please contact your local VFW post, Boy Scouts of America, or America Legion if you’d like assistance or more information on proper flag disposal.

Sources: American Legion; www.firstamendmentcenter.org; www.vfw.org; www.ushistory.org; nationalflagfoundation.org