By Carrie E. David (SMDC/ARSTRAT)February 25, 2016
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Alabama -- Most federal employees -- military and civilian -- who have served through at least one election cycle know of the limits on political activity imposed by The Hatch Act and service-specific rules, but the ever-growing popularity of social media has raised many new questions over what political activity is permissible.
The Hatch Act, passed in 1939, restricts the political activity of civilian employees serving in a variety of federally funded programs, but it was amended in 1993 to allow most employees to engage in certain types of political activity while in their personal capacity.
"While The Hatch Act allows most federal employees to participate in some types of political activity, the act prohibits political activity while on duty, while wearing an official uniform or insignia, while using a government vehicle, and in any federal workplace," said Sarah Green, senior ethics attorney, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command. "The ease of accessing one's personal social media and email though have made it much easier for federal employees to unknowingly violate the law."
Political activity in this case is defined as any activity directed at the success or failure of a political party or partisan political group or candidate in a partisan race. Complying with the act is possible if employees remember a few guidelines, Green said.
Receiving political or partisan emails or invitations to fundraisers at work is not inherently a problem if employees keep the guidelines in mind.
"Federal employees may receive a political e-mail at work, and they may forward that email to their personal accounts," Green said. "They may not forward that email to others and definitely not to subordinates. And under no circumstance can a federal employee solicit or receive political contributions at any time, nor invite individuals to political fundraising events."
Social media with its likes, shares, tweets, profile pictures and posts creates its own minefields.
"Federal employees may not like, friend or follow the social media page of a partisan group or candidate in a partisan race while on duty or in the workplace," Green said. "If a federal employee displays a political party or campaign logo or candidate photograph as his profile picture, then he cannot post, share, like, or tweet anything while on duty or in the workplace even if the item is nonpolitical."
Service members' social media activity is further restricted.
"Service members may express their personal views on public issues or political candidates on social media, much as they would be permitted to write a letter to the editor," Green said. "If the service member is identified in any way as being active duty, then the entry must clearly and prominently state that the view is not that of the Department of Defense.
"In addition, Soldiers may friend, like or follow the social media page of a political party or partisan candidate, campaign, group or cause," Green said. "They cannot, however, engage in any partisan political activity. They cannot link to, share posts, or encourage others to like or follow said entity."
For more information, view the Political Activity Guidance for Senate Confirmed Officials at DoD and The Hatch Act: Frequently Asked Questions on Federal Employees and the Use of Social Media links to the right. If federal civilians or Soldiers have further questions, they should contact the SMDC ethics counselors at (256) 955-2181 or (719) 554-2126 or email the U.S. Office of Special Counsel at firstname.lastname@example.org.