We are often asked if it is proper to half staff flags privately for family members, employees or members of an organization. This is among the toughest questions that arise. Regarding who can order a half-staffing and when, The Flag Code does spell out many specifics. But it does say The President is not the only one who can order a half staffing. It gives governors the right also. Many state laws provide for governors being able to order half staff also. However keep in mind, orders from The President or any other government official apply to government flags only. The President and the Federal Government can not order that citizens half staff a flag. Who says so? The White House
It would seem to follow that if The President or The Federal Government can not order private citizens to participate in a government half staffing then they can also not prohibit a private one. But is it proper to half staff flags absent a governmental decree? In indicating when a flag should be half staffed, The flag code spells out many specific instances. But then it gives us the the vague instance described as "in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law" to indicate when a flag may be half staffed. "Recognized customs" can mean a lot of things and indeed in practice it means different things to different people when it comes to local or personal half staffings. Some people object to them. Some would focus on The Code's mentioning only the "death of other officials or foreign dignitaries." The Code is silent altogether regarding the deaths of persons who are not an official or foreign dignitary.
But are private citizens allowed to take the matter of half staffing into their own hands? Yes. In a report titled The United States Flag: Federal Law Relating to Display and Associated Questions by the Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress there is this conclusion:
"Again, the provisions of the Flag Code on flying the flag at half-staff are, like all the Code's provisions, a guide only. They do not apply, as a matter of law, to the display of the flag at half-staff by private individuals and organizations. No federal restrictions or court decisions are known that limit such an individual’s lowering his own flag or that make such display alone a form of desecration."
(Emphasis has been added by [author].)
There are two schools of thought regarding private half staffing. I can not tell you which is best. There is no right or wrong. I can teach you the controversy. One school of thought maintains that localized and private half staffings deplete the meaning of half staffing as a national or statewide event. I notice this situation around our town when sometimes the flags are up and down every other week and no one knows the meaning. This school of thought maintains that The Flag is a national symbol and its use as a symbol of mourning should be reserved for widespread national or at least statewide events. Those who belong to this school of thought say the best way to display local private mourning is to affix a black mourning streamer to the flag, a technique also recognized in army regulations.
The other school does not hold to the notion of reserving half staffing for events as announced by government authority such as The President or a governor. In practice, personal half staffings are done every day.
As far as how long a period of time is appropriate for a personal half staffing, there is no answer to be found in published protocol because the very practice itself is not specifically spelled out. As a guideline, The Flag Code creates a pecking order in the event of government half staffings. It calls for a 30 day half staffing for a president or former president, 10 days for the speaker of the house, down to one day for a member of congress. Where a private individual would fit in this protocol is anyone's opinion.
As free people, the entire matter is left up to our own discretion and the dictates of our own consciousness. It is not against any law or code I know for private flags to be half staffed for private events. Nor does any code of which I am aware spell out how to properly do it.
For the record, here is verbatim what The Flag Code says about half staffing:
Title 4> Chapter 1> § 7
m) The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff. By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law. In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff. The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress. The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day. As used in this subsection—
(1) the term “half-staff” means the position of the flag when it is one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff;
(2) the term “executive or military department” means any agency listed under sections 101 and 102 of title 5, United States Code; and
(3) the term “Member of Congress” means a Senator, a Representative, a Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico.