Flag Battle: experts weigh in on DeSantis-Fried half-staff debate

Is either official in the wrong or taking part in an illegal move? The short answer appears to be no.
Published: Feb. 23, 2021 at 2:16 AM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - The latest fight between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the highest democrat elected to statewide office, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, covers some pretty obscure ground.

Not everyone is versed in U.S. and Florida Flag Code. So WCTV reached out to experts to see if Gov. DeSantis was in the clear when he expressed plans to lower flags to half-staff to honor Rush Limbaugh at a Friday news conference.

The quick announcement immediately drew criticism from many critics of the radio host who pointed to his controversial comments. On Monday, Fried announced she would direct her offices to ignore any mandate from the Governor’s Mansion to lower flags.

Is either official in the wrong or taking part in an illegal move? The short answer appears to be no.

Neither federal or state law restricts Gov. DeSantis from using his power that way.

U.S. Flag Code originated in the early 20th century and was modified over the years. It gives governors authority to direct flags at half-staff following the death of a state official, politician, member of the armed forces or a first responder.

While the U.S. Code includes a number of charts, pictures, and tables, there’s no enforcement measure behind any of it.

John Folsom wanted to make that point clear when he talked with WCTV about the matter Monday. He is the District Two Chaplain for the American Legion in Tallahassee. He spends his days at the Tallahassee National Cemetery working with veteran burials. He knows the importance of the stars and stripes.

Folsom argued the governor is within his right to lower the flag, even for a partisan figure like Limbaugh. But he said Gov. DeSantis should keep fairness in mind.

“What would make it seem fair with the other half of the people in the state is if the governor exercised that same discretion at a future date, a future situation that might be for a different political party,” he said.

Florida law on flags calls on the governor’s office to create protocols to follow, and gives the executive the right to lower the state flag for “prominent citizens.”

The latest governor-issued protocol dates back to 2012. That document names four categories for lowering the flag. None apply to Limbaugh, but the protocols leave ultimate approval for other figures up to the governor.

Jim Ferrigan is the Protocol Director for the North American Vexillological Association. He’s a flag expert.

He said Gov. DeSantis has enough wiggle room within current law to lower flags for someone who hasn’t served the country or served in public office. But he questioned whether it sets the right precedent.

He said lowering the flag should be reserved for “someone who is so significant that the whole state feels the loss.”

“I don’t think that’s the case in this instance,” he said.

So far in 2021, Gov. DeSantis has ordered the flag at half-staff for the Parkland shooting anniversary and to honor FBI agents killed in South Florida.

Last year, the republican ordered the same honor after the passing of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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