By Carrie David Campbell (USASMDC)January 31, 2020
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Alabama -- Most federal employees - military and civilian - who have served through at least one election cycle are aware of the limits on political activity imposed by The Hatch Act and service-specific rules, but the ever-growing popularity of social media raises questions about what political activity is permissible.
The Hatch Act, passed in 1939, restricts the political activity of civilian employees and DOD Directive 1344.10 applies similar rules to members of the armed forces.
"While The Hatch Act allows most federal employees to participate in some types of political activity while outside the workplace, the act prohibits political activity under certain conditions," said Kevin Osterbauer, ethics counselor, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. "No federal employee can engage in political activity while on duty, while wearing an official uniform or insignia, while using a government vehicle or in any federal workplace."
Some permissible political activities include: placing a campaign sign in their yard (could have restrictions in base housing), putting a single campaign bumper sticker on a personal car, making financial contributions favoring political parties or candidates, expressing personal opinions, attending political events (never in uniform), assisting in nonpartisan voter registration drives and signing a nominating petition.
"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," Osterbauer said. "Receiving political or partisan emails or invitations to fundraisers at work is not inherently a problem if employees keep these guidelines in mind that restrict the ability to respond while on duty and in the federal workplace.
"Federal employees who receive a political email at work may not forward that email to anyone else, including subordinates," Osterbauer said. "And under no circumstance can a federal employee solicit or receive political contributions at any time, nor invite individuals to political fundraising events."
Some other prohibited political activities include inviting subordinates to campaign events; using an official title or position while engaging in political activity; or using agency resources.
Social media with its likes, shares, tweets, profile pictures and posts creates additional concerns.
"The ease of accessing one's personal social media and email anywhere at any time can create problems, but complying with the act is possible if employees remember a few guidelines," Osterbauer said. "Federal employees are prohibited in the workplace from emailing, blogging, tweeting, or posting to social media (even if using a personal device or email account, even if sharing or forwarding content which was authored by others, and even if sharing or forwarding to friends or like-minded coworkers) that support or oppose political parties or candidates running for partisan political office."
Federal employees also may not ask for donations by mail, email or social media; solicit through a phone bank; nor share or like a fundraising post on social media.
Service members' social media activity is more restricted than federal civilians.
"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," Osterbauer said. "If the service member is identified in any way as being active duty, then the entry must clearly and prominently state that the views expressed are those of the individual and not those 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," Osterbauer 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 Political Activities at https://ogc.osd.mil/defense_ethics/topics/political_activities.html and The Hatch Act Guidance on Social Media at https://ogc.osd.mil/defense_ethics/resource_library/hatch_act_and_social_media.pdf. If federal civilian employees or Soldiers have further questions, they should contact the USASMDC ethics attorney at (256) 955-4521.