Upside Down American Flag

The American flag is a highly revered symbol. Choosing to fly the flag upside down for no apparent reason is considered disrespectful. So, when is it appropriate to fly the flag upside down? 

In this guide, we will discuss the practice of displaying the flag in this specific manner. Typically, an upside-down American flag is a sign of distress or extreme emergencies. Some may also use it as a form of protest, which is protected as free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Nonetheless, we’ll give a deeper explanation along with historic examples of when the flag was flown upside down. Show your patriotism and shop for your own outdoor American flag at AmericanFlags.com today! 

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The Symbolism of Flying the Flag Upside Down 

The practice of flying a flag upside down for distress purposes is nothing new. Specifically, maritime tradition states that ships in distress would often signal their distress by flying their flags upside down. As such, using this practice with the American flag (if done appropriately) can signal extreme danger. 

Flag flying upside down on a building Flag flying upside down on a building

What Is the Legal Perspective of Flying an American Flag Upside Down? 

Again, flying the American flag upside down for no apparent reason is considered disrespectful. However, those who do so will not be subject to punishments under the law. Such acts can still be protected by the First Amendment on the grounds of free speech. 

One of the more landmark Supreme Court cases, Texas v. Johnson, discussed how a flag can be used in forms of protest. The 1971 ruling declared that burning the flag was a form of protest. Thus, the First Amendment allowed it as a form of free speech. 

Likewise, the display of an upside-down American flag is protected in the same way. With this in mind, it is important to be mindful of the Flag Code, which discusses the proper display and handling of the American flag. This includes when and how you should display the American flag. For example, if you intend to fly your American flag 24 hours a day, you must illuminate it at night.

When Is It Appropriate to Fly the Flag Upside Down? 

Now that you have a legal understanding of flying the flag upside down, we will get into scenarios when it’s appropriate to do so. Let’s take a look at the list: 

  • Natural disasters: Natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes or floods can be distressing for those who are affected. People may fly their flag upside down to signify their distress and urgent need for medical care and supplies. Flying the flag upside down signals to the proper authorities that assistance is needed.

  • Civil unrest: Communities experiencing civil unrest can fly the flag upside down to bring attention to the issues at hand.
     
  • War and conflict: An individual can fly the flag upside down during times of war or international conflict. Specifically, they do this to protest against military intervention as well as the human cost of the conflict itself. Flying the flag upside down can serve as a visual message and a call for peace and diplomacy. Later, we will explore two historical conflicts that sparked mass protests in which people prominently displayed upside-down American flags. 

  • Political turmoil: Events of political turmoil such as a crisis, scandal, or breach of democratic protocol, could allow an individual or group to protest by flying the flag upside down. One reason for this is they are protesting the actions taken by the government or the implementation of policies that may threaten the values and principles of the United States. In recent years, politically active Americans would often fly the flags upside down to protest the current presidential administration. For example, left-leaning Americans would do this to express their disapproval of then-President Donald Trump. Likewise, right-leaning voters would do the same as an expression of disapproval for President Joe Biden. Even political protests for national abortion rights featured upside-down U.S. flags to signal their disapproval of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, including the restriction of abortion laws in conservative-leaning states.

  • Personal distress: Interestingly enough, an individual may fly the flag upside down on their property. If it isn’t for political purposes, this could signal that they may be facing personal distress. This could include anything from financial hardship, illness, or other danger to life. If you see someone flying their flag upside down, it could mean that they need your help. Consider checking in with them to make sure they're okay. Otherwise, consider contacting your local authorities to request a welfare check on the individual. 

upside down flag being flown at a BLM protest upside down flag being flown at a BLM protest

What Are Some Historical Examples of the Flag Being Flown Upside Down? 

There are several notable instances in American history where the flag was flown upside down. Here are a few examples: 

  • The Civil Rights Movement: Throughout the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others, gained steam. African American activists would fly the American flag upside down to protest racial injustice and segregation laws. Their movement was successful with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 among other policies. Today, upside-down American flags are sometimes displayed at social justice protests, such as the Black Lives Matter Movement.
  • Anti-War Protests: During the 1960s, the American flag was flown upside down to protest against the Vietnam War. This practice re-emerged in 2003 with the Second Iraq War, as many opponents used the upside-down flag to protest both the conflict and the associated loss of life. Despite the different time periods, the message remained consistent: a call for peace and a stand against military intervention. 
  • September 11 Attacks: In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, some individuals flew the flag upside down to express their shock, anger, and grief. Others decided to display their flags properly to show that they were supportive and proud to be Americans. Whether an American flew the flag upside down or the right way, the attempt was to show their solidarity to those who have lost their lives and unify our country.

Purchase a High-Quality Flag at AmericanFlags.com 

We hope you have a better understanding of when it is appropriate to fly the American flag upside down. If you believe that flying the flag upside down as a form of distress is a good idea, you are entitled to do so, and you do not need to worry about legal repercussions.

If you would like a flag to display on your private property, AmericanFlags.com has thousands of high-quality options. Choose from our signature Tough Tex American Flags for a flag that withstands high winds, or our Beacon® Nylon American Flags if you need something for any weather. Shop our site to find your ideal flag today! 

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