COMMENTARY -- Our political discourse these days has disintegrated to a Cliffs Notes version of graphic-size inflammatory memes that go viral on Facebook and other social media sites with the speed of fire that leaves burned friendships in its wake.
As a result, I have seen more threats to unfriend and unfollow people over political differences cross my Facebook news feed since Jan. 20 than I did all throughout 2016 leading up to the November election.
Many Department of the Army civilians might be wondering if their die-hard partisan, meme-sharing coworkers are violating the 1939 Hatch Act. Luckily, even if we were still in the election season, the Hatch Act probably would not apply to most of what is being posted. Probably.
The Hatch Act is a federal law that limits specific political activities of federal employees, as well as some local, state, and District of Columbia government employees.
Before I explain too much, we should understand what political activity means. The Office of Special Counsel defines "political activity" as "any activity directed at the success or failure of a political party or partisan political group (collectively referred to as "partisan groups"), or candidate in a partisan race." The key takeaway is influence -- influencing an election.
The Hatch Act defines two types of employees, Less Restricted and Further Restricted.
Further Restricted employees are those appointed by the president and generally those in intelligence and enforcement-type agencies such as the Senior Executive Service, National Security Agency and the Secret Service. For a full list of Further Restricted agencies, visit the Office of Special Counsel Hatch Act website at: https://osc.gov/Pages/HatchAct.aspx
The good news is that as defined by the Hatch Act, most federal employees are considered Less Restricted. This means that federal employees may engage in political activity, including social media and email, with only a few exceptions.
Those exceptions are while on duty, which includes telecommuting; while in the workplace in any federally owned or leased room or building; while wearing a uniform or official insignia; using any federally owned or leased vehicle; or when representing the government in an official capacity. Furthermore, they may not use their official capacity to accept or solicit political contributions for any reason.
So, if you share that political meme during an election season, does that violate the Hatch Act? If you are not on duty, not representing the government in an official capacity, not soliciting donations, and you are not a Further Restricted employee, the answer is probably no. If the country is not even in an election season, then the Hatch Act really does not apply at all.
Maybe, though, that is not the standard by which one should measure the appropriateness of political memes. Maybe the Army Value of Respect would be a better guidepost as to whether you should share that meme. If we spend a little more time respecting each other's differences, maybe we could understand each other more, and then we would spend a lot less time offending and hurting each other. Maybe then, there would be fewer threats of unfriending and unfollowing.