Is It Against The Law To Alter The National Anthem?

Recently, pop singer Jewel performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of the Indianapolis 500. Her rendition of the national anthem was slower and more soulful than traditionally performed, prompting some to criticize her performance.

Likewise, other entertainers have altered the song, including singer Christina Aguilera who sang different lyrics during her 2011 Super Bowl performance. Back in 1990, actress Roseanne Barr performed the national anthem in an off-key manner at a major league baseball game.

The national anthem is a challenging tune for many musicians and while an innocent mistake seems acceptable when performing, some may wonder if it’s against any law or regulation to intentionally alter “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a public performance?

History of the song

In 1814, poet Francis Scott Key penned a poem about a battle involving the British siege of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Key’s words were set to a melody from a popular British song called “To Anacreon in Heaven” to develop the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

On March 3, 1931 President Herbert Hoover signed a bill into law designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the country’s national anthem.

The law signed by Hoover reads: “… that the composition consisting of the words and music known as the Star-Spangled Banner is designed as the national anthem of the United States.” The original law does not include any guidance regarding how to properly play or behave during the song.

Amendments to the law

In June of 1942, the law regarding the national anthem was revised to include how people should behave while it is being performed. The law indicated that those in uniform should stand at attention and men should remove their hats. The same code required women to place their hands on their hearts when the flag is displayed during the playing of the anthem.

In December of 1942, the law was revised directing both men and women to stand and face the direction of the music when the song is being played. In 1976, the code was simplified to state that men and women are instructed to stand with their hands over their hearts, men removing their hats, irrespective of whether or not the flag was displayed. Later, in 1998, the law was revised to change “those in uniform” to “members of the Armed Forces and veterans.” Additional variations were made, but nothing regulatory.

Shortly after Aguilera’s performance in 2011, a Republican Senator from Indiana proposed legislation that would set standards for the performance of the national anthem. The legislation, which was not passed, included a fine of $25 to be levied against an individual who made deliberate changes to the song.

State law

At one time, Michigan law prohibited playing, singing, or otherwise rendering the national anthem in any public place, at any public entertainment, or in any theatre, motion picture hall, restaurant, or café, except as an entire and separate composition or number and without embellishments of national or other melodies. In addition, the law also prohibited prohibited performing any selection or medley of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Finally, the law prohibited performing at any of the places mentioned above for dancing or an exit march. The section of the law pertaining to "The Star-Spangled Banner" were repealed on March 14, 2016.

Help is available

The attorneys at O’Reilly Rancilio are available to answer your questions regarding state and federal law. To learn more, please call 586-726-1000 or visit our website.

Categories: Municipal