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Expert Weighs In On DeSantis/Limbaugh Flag Furor

American flag at half-staff in front of the U.S. Supreme Court
The American flag flies at half-staff in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The flag code allows Gov. DeSantis to honor Rush Limbaugh by ordering flags be lowered to half-staff, but it also allows officials to reject his order.

Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered American and Florida flags to be flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on Wednesday to honor the controversial conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who died last week of cancer in his Palm Beach residence.

While the order was limited to the Palm Beach County Courthouse, Palm Beach's City Hall, and the State Capitol in Tallahassee, pushback was immediate and widespread:

  • Palm Beach County commissioner Melissa McKinlay tweeted late Tuesday that the county wouldn't lower the flags, saying it should be "a unifying gesture during solemn occasions;"
  • St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the city would not lower its flags for Limbaugh, but would do so in the honor of Pinellas County Deputy Michael Magli, who was killed in the line of duty last week;
  • Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz released a statement saying the order was against Florida flag protocol: “I encourage you to ignore this order. In doing so, you will avoid glorifying a person that does not deserve any praise and you will also preserve the sanctity of the high honor offered by the act of lowering our flag;”
  • and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat in the state cabinet, called the move disturbing, adding that offices under her direction wouldn't obey the order.

But James J. Ferrigan III, Protocol Officer and Treasurer of the North American Vexillological Association, denied that DeSantis' order was in violation of Florida’s flag code.

He said that, as the state's chief executive, the governor has the right to put the state into mourning for any person, even if that person was not an elected official or a member of the military.

However, he added that there was precedent for other elected officials to reject DeSantis’s flag order.

“The Flag code only mentions the President and the governors, but it is common for a major of a city to put his city in mourning,” Ferrigan said. “Whoever is in charge of that particular flagpole gets to pick.”

And Ferrigan said that while DeSantis' wasn't in violation of the flag code, the order could lead to a perception problem.

“It becomes an optics issue. What are we saying [by lowering the flag]?” Ferrigan said. “For some, it's an outright disgrace — Florida will become the laughingstock. For others, it's a commemoration that feels totally appropriate.”

The practice of lowering the flag to half-staff has increased in recent years. Ferrigan said that's in part due to politicians' "virtue signaling" and partisan divides.

The tradition of lowering a flag to signal mourning has roots in the 16th-century Anglo-Dutch naval wars, and while Ferrigan said the initial purpose of the gesture was likely to show that a ship's crew was emotionally unready to enter into combat, the gesture has become increasingly mythologized and sacred to many people.

“This used to be an extremely rare event, where the president placed the nation in mourning or the governor placed a state in mourning,” Ferrigan said. “This is becoming a more common occurrence, which means it’s becoming a more trivial occurrence. People no longer really take it with the same memorial sentiments as it was originally intended.”

President Joe Biden issued the first flag order of his presidency this week — lowering the American flag to honor the 500,000 people who have died of COVID-19. Ferrigan said that likely renders any conflicts over DeSantis’s order moot since all flags will be at half-staff anyway.

Elizabeth Kauma is the WUSF social media intern for the spring of 2021.
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