Flag placement ahead of I.C. campaign stop stirs controversy

Flags were photographed on the ground before being hung; tarp not visible

Gregg Hennigan
Published: September 10 2012 | 8:15 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 12:14 am in
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IOWA CITY — Two large American flags displayed during President Barack Obama’s Iowa City campaign rally Friday may have been handled in an inappropriate manner.

Photographs show two flags appearing to be on the ground — but on a tarp in other photos provided by the Obama campaign — in preparation of the campaign stop, which included Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their spouses.

According to the U.S. Flag Code, “The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.”

John Derner, department adjutant for the American Legion of Iowa, said it would be improper to place a U.S. flag on the ground.

“I would consider it disrespectful,” he said. “And I realize when you’re talking flags of large sizes they’re sometimes difficult to handle. But when you’re displaying flags of that size, it’s important to have the appropriate manpower there” to make sure they do not touch the ground.

Two large flags were on display during the campaign stop on the University of Iowa campus Friday evening. One was hung on Jessup Hall behind the stage. The other hung over a walkway just north of the large crowd gathered to see the president.

Erin Seidler, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, said in an email message the flags were never on the ground and were lying on a tarp “in accordance with protocol.”

“We take every step to ensure the flag is handled with proper care and respect,” she wrote. “The flag is an important symbol of this of country and the values we stand for. We strive to make sure it is handled accordingly.”

Derner said he was not aware of any provision that allowed for a flag to be placed on a protective covering on the ground. The Flag Code makes no mention of that being acceptable.

Seidler said she’s not aware of a protective covering being mentioned in code but said a tarp is always behind the large flags to keep them touching whatever is behind them, like the side of a building. The tarp must be trimmed before the flag is hung, which is why it is not visible in some of the photographs and at the events, she said.

The Obama campaign provided two photographs that show a black tarp behind a flag.

The UI expressed regret for the situation on its Facebook page Friday, writing: “Yesterday, we posted to this page a photo of preparations for today’s Presidential visit in which the American flag was shown laying on the ground. We apologize for the show of disrespect for our country and those who have served to defend it. We assure you this was not the intention.”

When asked about the apology by a reporter Monday afternoon, UI spokesman Tom Moore reaffirmed the sentiment of the post. After the story was posted online, he said that he did not recall talking about the apology but said the Facebook post actually was an apology for posting the photo because of the appearance it created.

He said all site preparation for the campaign event, including the handling of the flags, was done by an outside vendor hired by the Obama campaign. He did not know the name of the vendor or whether any UI employees helped with the preparation.

Conservative website TheBlaze.com reported the incident last week.

On Monday afternoon, there were more than 250 comments on two UI Facebook posts on the situation, many critical of the UI.

Some of the comments said protocol calls for a flag that touches the ground to be burned, but the Flag Code does not mention that and Snopes.com, a website that discusses urban legends, said that is not true in a post on June 14, which is Flag Day.

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