June 20, 2021

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How Do Presidents and Governors Decide Half-Staff Flag Orders?

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On February 19, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ordered that flags in that state be lowered to half-staff to honor conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh.

The order was controversial because Limbaugh was controversial – a champion to conservatives, but a hatemonger to others – and it raised questions about how governmental leaders decide who gets honored in this fashion.

Let’s take a look.

Who Makes the Decision?

First, it is important to note that only presidents and governors can issue half-staff orders. Mayors cannot, except for in the District of Columbia.

So, can presidents and governors order that flags be lowered for anyone they want? Here, the record is a bit murky.

It seems logical that the first place to look for an answer is the federal Flag Code, which covers every aspect of how the American flag is to be displayed and cared for. Section 7(m) of the Code goes into great detail about who is covered – “principal figures” of government, foreign dignitaries, members of the armed forces or first responders who die while serving on active duty – but there is no mention of groups or individuals who don’t fit into those categories who have been honored by lowered flags.

Here we are speaking primarily of victim groups, such as those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. These designations have occurred repeatedly over the years; most recently, they have included the half million Americans who have died from COVID-19. On February 22, President Biden ordered five days of lowered flags to honor their lives.

Even though the Flag Code makes no mention of victim groups, apparently this is a convention that has taken root over time. When it comes to commemorating individuals with half-staff orders, though, presidents haven’t strayed much from the definitions of Section 7(m). Barack Obama, the most active flag-lowering president in our history, designated Nancy Reagan and astronaut Neil Armstrong for half-staff orders, which might seem a bit of a stretch under the letter of Section 7(m). But one could argue – perhaps – that they really were “principal figures of government.”

Honoring Yogi Berra and a Police Dog

But the really weird half-staff activity, like the current one in Florida, is at the state level. For the record, Florida law does seem to provide the state’s governor sufficient room to order flags lowered for anyone they want. It states that flags may be lowered “upon the death of high-ranking state officials, uniformed law enforcement and fire service personnel, and prominent citizens.”

So, if DeSantis considers Limbaugh, who lived in Palm Beach, to be a “prominent citizen,” he has the right to order flags to be lowered.

While the Limbaugh recognition in the Sunshine State is certainly one of the most controversial half-staff actions ever, there have been a few other strange ones:

  • In 2016, then-Governor John Kasich ordered Ohio’s flags lowered to honor a police dog, Jethro, who was killed during a robbery investigation.
  • New Jersey Governor Christ Christie has issued half-staff proclamations for an array of Garden State entertainers: singer Whitney Houston, baseball great Yogi Berra, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, and actor James Gandolfini.
  • In 2016, flags were lowered in Rhode Island for a convicted felon, former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci.

In addition, mayors have occasionally issued half-staff orders in defiance or ignorance of the Flag Code, which says they can’t do it. In 2009, Carson, Nevada, lowered flags to honor singer Michael Jackson, prompting anger among its more conservative citizens, and in 2008, Buffalo lowered flags for TV journalist and native son Tim Russert.

Willful Ignorance

One of the strange aspects of the flag-lowering orders is that there are no actual penalties for agencies or jurisdictions who refuse to follow them. In Florida, Palm Beach County and the city of St. Petersburg will not lower flags for Limbaugh, and the state’s agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, said her agency wouldn’t either.

DeSantis’ order specified half-staffs on one day, February 24, from sunrise to sunset. February 24 was also the third day of President Biden’s half-staff order for victims of COVID-19. So the flags were already half-staffed in Palm Beach County and St. Petersburg and at the agriculture department offices.

Elsewhere in Florida on that day, you could be forgiven for looking at a half-staffed flag and wondering who it was honoring. Rush Limbaugh? Or a COVID-19 victim?

A few years ago, the Associated Press did a survey and found that flags in the U.S. were at half-staff 328 days that year.

Have they become so commonplace that they’ve lost meaning? If we look at half-staffed flags and not know why they’ve been lowered, what’s the point?

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