In 1942 Congress passed the Flag Code, which outlines what can and can't be done to the American flag. There were no penalties prescribed, though, so enforcement has been sketchy. Too sketchy for Steve Fowle, editor of The New Hampshire Gazette, trademarked as "The Nation's Oldest Newspaper."He's used his newspaper, which is published in Portsmouth and distributed in the Seacoast Region, to take flag offenders to task. "It's a hugely popular feature," he says, and that makes him feel he has company in his quest. Steve brought The Gazette back into the Fowle family in 1989 by acquiring lapsed ownership rights for $40. It had been founded in 1756 by Daniel Fowle, Steve's third cousin five times removed. He says he's held "dozens of jobs" since he served in Vietnam and has finally found something that suits him.Why was the "Flag Police" feature created? Because there was a need. People have been trying to "protect" the flag from desecration, at the expense of the First Amendment, since the Vietnam War. Yet flags are desecrated every day through simple neglect and indifference to the U.S. Flag Code, and no one seemed to care.Can anyone enlist? People can and do. There are no formalities - just e-mail us a photo with the place and date of the offense.What kinds of offenses have you seen? The variety is overwhelming. Just when you think you've seen it all, someone surprises you. Flag rugs, flag towels, flag toothbrushes, flag advertisements. By far the most common offense, though, is flying worn-out flags.What's the worse? In sheer numbers, the millions of small flags that shredded slowly on car antennas after 9/11. In magnitude, enormous flags being carried horizontally during Inaugural Parades.Is it true you declared amnesty after September 11th? The number of violations was overwhelming. It would have been impossible to bust everybody. It was a choice between amnesty and abandoning the mission entirely. That was unacceptable.One company you busted sold American flag candies. Is it wrong to eat the flag? Making flag candy is absolutely wrong. Once it has been made, though, what is to be done? People must follow their own conscience.Do the rules apply to the now-popular Gadsden flag? The Flag Code does not address that question, but common sense would suggest that it does.Is your flag proudly displayed? Absolutely. My family's all-cotton flag - made in the U.S.A., of course - flies proudly, and in accordance with the Code.Do Americans love their flag more than other countries do? We can't say. It's hard to imagine that they could.
This article appears in the July 2011 issue of New Hampshire Magazine