From the Nov.-Dec. 1994 National Flag Foundations "Standard Bearer" Magazine.
Flying the flag at half-staff is an area of flag etiquette that most people want to make sure they get right. It is also an area for which the road to error is routinely paved with good intentions. With that in mind, we offer this refresher course as the all-important intersection where knowledge meets benevolence.
FLYING THE FLAG AT HALF-STAFF: The pertinent section of the Flag Code says, "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 possesion, 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 orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.
In the event of the death 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 code also includes other related details including the specific length of time during which the flag should be displayed at half-staff, in the event of the death of a "principal figure"(e.g., 30 days for the death of a sitting or former President, 10 days for the death of a sitting Vice-President,etc.).
GOOD-FAITH MISUNDERSTANDINGS: Although the code is actually pretty clear, confusion continues to occur. For example, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno recently ordered the American Flag flown at half-staff on all U.S. Department of Justice buildings, in honor of several DEA agents who had died. While NFF understands this gesture, the Flag Code does not give Attorney General Reno the authority to issue that order. Closer to NFF's Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home, Mayor Tom Murphy ordered all flags flown at half-staff to honor the victims of a plane crash. Here again, a well-intentioned gesture, but one for which no authority exists. NFF points out these "good-faith misunderstandings" not to criticize or embarrass anyone, but rather to head off a growing trivialization of this memorial salute, and to preserve the dignity and significance of flying the U.S. flag at half-staff. To any readers who may think that NFF is insensitive for raising these breaches of etiquette, please be assured that our motives are pure. We grieve these human loses deeply; however, we believe proper respect for our flag must be maintained - no matter the circumstances.