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Date: November 9, 2007
Byline: Don Cox

Reno man a stickler for properly flown flags

James C. Bennett Sr. loves the American flag. So does Teri Ahlers.

Ahlers will be part of Sunday's Veterans Day Parade in downtown Reno, riding in a truck painted like an American flag and handing out 2,000 small American flags.

"Our truck is a big American flag," said Ahlers, general manager of eight A-American Self Storage facilities in Northern Nevada. "You can't miss it."

But Bennett, an 81-year-old Air Force veteran, probably will.

"I'll stay the heck away from it," Bennett said of the parade. "They'll be doing it wrong."

Bennett dislikes the way flags are flown at A-American and many other businesses in Reno and Sparks.

He said the displays are disrespectful and violate federal code.

"There's a lot of people doing a lot of things wrong," said Bennett, his voice getting louder and angrier. "They're not 'smiley faces.' They're American flags. They represent a living country."

Technically, Bennett might, in some cases, be correct, according to experts. Practically, however, they say he's not.

"I would venture to guess those flags are properly displayed," said Mike Buss, an executive and flag expert for the American Legion, the country's largest veterans group. "We are going to consider the patriotic intent."

Lee Rowland, an attorney and Northern Nevada coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union, considers the legal intent.

"There are a lot of laws on the books that seem like they're laws," Rowland said of federal flag statutes. "But, when you look closely, there's no enforcement. That's not a statement of law. It's a statement of policy."

Bennett keeps the law handy.

Copies of Title 4, U.S. Code, Chapter 1 fill a box in the trunk of his 1994 red Ford Tempo GL. Sometimes, Bennett shares the code with business owners displaying the flag.

"If it's convenient, I go to the door," said Bennett, who notes the American flag flying on a pole in front the Reno Gazette-Journal isn't perfect.

It touches the Nevada state flag flying below it on the same pole.

A few things in the code Bennett likes to point out:

  • The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water or merchandise.
  • No other flag or pennant should be placed above, or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the U.S.
  • The flag should never be used as wearing apparel.
  • The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.

It's the last one that really gets Bennett steamed.

"They're overdoing the patriotic bit," Bennett said of businesses where numerous flags are flying. "They're using the flag as advertising."

Buss, however, isn't so strict.

"That veteran, he probably knows his flag etiquette, and he's a stickler for it," Buss said of Bennett.

Buss said the key word in the flag code, which the American Legion helped develop, is "should." It doesn't mean you "must." There are no penalties if you "don't." The code might be law, but it's not enforced, he said.

"The guy at the American Legion is absolutely right," Rowland said. "It's an advisory code. It's a codification of custom."

If it was any more than that, according to Rowland, the code would be a violation of First Amendment free speech rights.

"The display of the flag in any manner is protected by the First Amendment," she said. "If there were specific rules, they would violate the First Amendment."

Last month in Reno, there was a story, which spread to the Internet, about a Mexican flag being displayed above an American flag at a business in the downtown area. Reno police said the federal flag code advising against such a display only establishes protocol for flying. The code is not a criminal statute, according to city officials.

But such actions infuriate Bennett.

"I spent 20 years in the service," he said. "I served that flag. I know men gave their lives for that flag. They're not here anymore. I can speak for them."

The Bar USA Sports Lounge on South Virginia Street has an American theme with two flags flying in front.

"It's using the American flag as advertising," Bennett said.

But Cecelia Soper, who owns the bar, tries to observe the code. Her flags, when they fly at night, are illuminated, as the rules suggest.

"I would rather fly the flag of my country than anything else," said Soper, whose son, Brandon Rather, is an Iraq war veteran.

There is one flag Bennett likes a lot. It's a large one flying high above Suzie's Adult Books on Kietzke Lane. The flag conforms to the code. It doesn't hang from the building. It's flying by itself on a staff. At night, it's illuminated.

"It's flying free," Bennett said. "It's beautiful."

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