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Flag desecration is a term applied to various acts that intentionally destroy, damage or deface a flag, most often a national flag. Often, such action is intended to make a political point against a country or its policies. Some countries have laws forbidding methods of destruction (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 or daubed with 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). Toilet paper, napkins, doormats, and other such items may also be manufactured bearing the image of the flag, so that the flag's image will be destroyed or dirtied 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 is disrespectful.Such actions may be 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.


During the 2005 Cronulla riotsmarker, a Lebanesemarker-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 Footscraymarker, Victoriamarker. He called the "artpiece" Proudly UnAustralian.

The 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 Launcestonmarker'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 Belgianmarker law. Flemish young people have burned Belgian flags on at least one occasion.


Flag desecration is not forbidden by Canadianmarker law.

In 1990, during heated political times around the Meech Lake Accord, the flag of Quebec was desecrated by protestors, which included some Quebecers, in Brockville, Ontariomarker opposed to Quebec's language laws after the Canadian flag had been burnt in protests in Quebec. Televised images of individuals stepping on the Quebec flag were played in Quebecmarker 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 1999, members of the Westboro Baptist Church from the United Statesmarker staged a burning of the Canadian Flag outside of the Supreme Court of Canadamarker in Ottawa, Ontariomarker. This was to protest legalization of same-sex marriage which was being adjudicated by the Canadian court.


It is illegal in Denmarkmarker, 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 reasoning of parliamentmarker was: the burning of foreign flags falls into the realm of foreign policy, as the burning of the flag of another country 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.

Faroe Islands

According to the Faroesemarker 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 French law, outraging the French national anthem or the French flag during an event organized or regulated by public authorities is liable for a fine of €7,500 (and six months incarceration if performed in a gathering). The law targets outrageous behaviour during public ceremonies and major sports events.

This clause was added as an amendment to a large bill dealing with internal security, in reaction to a football match during which there had been whistles against La Marseillaise, but also to similar actions during public ceremonies. The amendment initially prohibiting such outrage regardless of the context, but a parliamentary commission later restricted its scope to events organized or regulated by public authorities, — which is to be understood, according to the ruling of the Constitutional Council as events organized by public authorities, mass sport matches and other mass events taking place in enclosures, but not private speech, literary or artistic works, or speech during events not organized or regulated by public authorities.

In 2006, a man who had publicly burnt a French flag stolen from the façade of the city hall of Aurillacmarker during a public festival, organized and regulated by public authorities, was sentenced to a 300€ fine.


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)

Nazi flag

In January 1941, the Flag of Nazi Germany flying from the German consulate in San Francisco, Californiamarker was slashed and torn down by two United States Navy sailors. They were arrested, tried and convicted of malicious mischief. The German government protested the incident and the United States Department of Statemarker expressed their regrets. Later that year, after Germany declared war on the United States, one of the sailors, Harold Sturtevant, reenlisted in the Navy after having been dismissed because of the incident.

Hong Kong

In 1999 Ng Kung Siu and Lee Kin Yun were convicted for desecration of the regional flag of Hong Kong and the National flag 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.


During a demonstration at the beginning of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 someone in the crowd cut out the communist coat of arms from the Hungarian flag, leaving a distinctive hole and others quickly followed suit. The "flag with a hole" became a symbol of the Hungarian resistance.


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 so that would be seen as a religious insult.


In Irelandmarker, 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.

For annual flag-burning by Ulster Loyalists, see Northern Ireland.


In 2007 six teenagers in the South Tel Avivmarker suburb of Bat Yammarker were arrested for burning an Israeli flag. This incident was considered serious by the police and others since the youths were suspected in other acts of vandalism and claimed to be Satanists.


In Japanmarker, under Chapter 4, Article 92 of the Criminal Code, any desecration of recognized foreign nation's national flag and symbol to dishonour 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. In 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 prohibits censorship).

New Zealand

In New Zealandmarker, under the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act 1981 it is illegal to destroy the New Zealand flag with the intent of dishonouring it.


Desecration of foreign country's flag or national coat of arms was previously banned according to the General Civil Penal Code §95. This ban was lifted in 2008.

Comedian Otto Jespersen burned a US flag during a satirical TV show in 2003.During the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, Norwegian flags were burned in demonstrations in various Muslim countries.


On January 9, 1964 a discussion broke out between Panamanian students and Americans living in the Panama Canal Zonemarker 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 Panamamarker breaking diplomatic relations with the United Statesmarker. This event is considered to be very important in the decision to negotiate and sign the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, that allowed that the Panama Canalmarker administration was handed over to the Panamanian Government on December 31, 1999. January 9 is known as Martyrs' Day and it is commemorated in Panama as a day of mourning. On October 21, 2008, United States wrestlers, the Heartbreak Express appeared on the largest interview segment on Panama television where they threw the flag of Panama down and stomped on it. The matter is currently under investigation.


The precise law in Perumarker is unclear, but such acts are clearly capable of causing outrage. "[T]he Model Leysi Suarez appeared naked 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 332 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 323) 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 324): 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.

During the 1990 World Cup Romanian fans had the communist era flag with a hole on the coat of arms.

Saudi Arabia

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.

South Korea

During the 1988 Olympics some South Koreansmarker expressed anger at humorous T-shirts worn by United States newspeople which were seen as defacing the flag of South Korea.

Soviet Union

The flag of the Soviet Unionmarker has been burned many times by protestors against its government's policies. For instance in Brazilmarker by those protesting the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia of 1968, and in New York Citymarker in 1985 by protesters against the Soviet War in Afghanistan.


Destruction, removal or desecration of national emblems installed by a public authority (i.e., the Swiss flag, the Swiss coat of arms, the cantonal or municipal flags and coats of arms) is punishable by a monetary penalty or imprisonment of up to three years according to the Swiss federal penal code. The destruction or desecration of privately owned flags or coats of arms is legal.


The flag of Turkey bears the star and crescent, an Islamic symbol that is considered sacred. Under the 1983 Turkish flag law, burning the flag is strictly forbidden, punishable by a prison sentence of three years. Displaying a torn or discoloured Turkish flag is also illegal.

United Kingdom

Northern Ireland

Englishmarker, Scottishmarker and Welshmarker law does not have any concept of "flag desecration", however the law in Northern Irelandmarker has varied since its foundation in 1921. The Union Flag of the United Kingdom and the tricolour of the Republic of Irelandmarker 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.

British military colours

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 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.

United Nations

In 2006 a United Nations flag was burned during a political campaign in Austin, Texasmarker to protest United Nations policy. The other candidate later claimed that it was an American flag that was burned. In 2009 a UN flag was dragged on the ground to show disrespect in a Tea Party protest in Jackson Holemarker, Wyomingmarker.

United States

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 Courtmarker 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 Orleansmarker 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.

During the United States involvement in the Vietnam War American flags were sometimes burned during anti-war protest demonstrations.

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.


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 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."

See also


  1. "Richard the Lionheart", by J. Gillingham, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1978, p. 176.
  2. "The RUC: A Force Under Fire", by Chris Ryder, London: Mandarin, 1992, p. 82
  3. 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
  4. Finnish flag law in finlex


  7. PM called on to outlaw flag-burning, ABC News
  8. See this article in french-speaking La Libre Belgique
  11. Løgtingslóg nr. 42 frá 17. juli 1959 um flaggið, sum broytt við løgtingslóg nr. 109 frá 29. desember 1998
  12. Loi n°2003-239 du 18 mars 2003 pour la sécurité intérieure De l'outrage
  13. Proceedings of the French national assembly, second sitting of 23 January 2003
  14. Report from the mixed National Assembly/Senate commission
  15. The Constitutional Council considered that the events regulated by public authorities consist in public events of a sportive, recreative or cultural character organized in enclosures that law and regulations submit to health and safety rules because of their size. See Decision 2003-467 DC, section 104.
  16. Ruling of 14 June 2006 by the Court of Appeal of Riom
  17. WAR & PEACE: Liberty Cabbage, Time Magazine, January 27, 1941
  18. German Protest Over Flag Incident is Made Public, St. Petersburg Times, January 22, 1941
  19. Pardoned Sailer Reassigned to Ship, Milwaukee Journal, December 22, 1941
  22. [1]
  23. The National Flag, The Protocol Section, Department of the Taoiseach, Dublin
  24. 'Satanist' teens allegedly burn flag, Jerusalem Post, January 30, 2007
  25. República Portuguesa, Código Penal
  26. Romanian Penal Code (2008)
  27. Agenţia de Monitorizare a Presei – Academia Caţavencu, "Programul FreeEx - Libertatea presei în România în anul 2003", March 2004
  28. Paul A. Herbig, Handbook of Cross-Cultural Marketing, pg. 20
  29. It's Not the Koreans Who Do Not Understand, Washington Post, October 1, 1988
  30. Protest against Czech invasions mounts in capitals of the world, UPI, August 22, 1968
  31. Afghans Protest Soviet Presence, New York Times, March 22, 1985
  32. Voter apathy plays part in Pflugerville runoff, KVUE, April 8, 2006
  33. Tax Protesters Gather, Jackson Hole Daily, April 16, 2009
  34. Forget Flag Burning, Time, June 25, 2006
  35. Amendment on Flag Burning Fails by One Vote in Senate - New York Times
  38. Official Venezuelan propaganda criticizing flag turning, with notice of protest prepended by Globovisión

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