1935 December 30

“Patriotism Cannot be Legislated:” NYC Mayor La Guardia Vetoes Compulsory Flag Law


New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia on this day vetoed a city ordinance that would have required the display of the American flag at any public meeting of fifteen or more persons. La Guardia argued that patriotism must be “spontaneous and not legislated.” The ordinance required that the flag be 36 x 48 inches and displayed in a “conspicuous” location. La Guardia added that he felt that instead of promoting patriotism the law “will do exactly the opposite.” If people wanted to gather without the flag on display, he continued, they had a right to do so, and compelling the flag to be displayed would not add “dignity” to their meetings.

In the late 1930s, as international tensions rose and a new world war seemed increasingly imminent, a wave of compulsory flag laws were passed by states across the country. The most important of these involved laws that compelled public school children to salute the flat every morning. In one of the most famous decisions in the history of the Supreme Court, and one of the most important affirmations of freedom of conscience, the Court struck down a West Virginia compulsory flag salute law as an unconstitutional compulsion that people express a belief that violated their conscience (West Virginia v. Barnette, June 14, 1943).

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