By Donna Wright, Mission Support Element-Hawaii and U.S. Army-Garrison HawaiiJune 8, 2012
SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii -- Many of us have seen media coverage of a corporal appearing onstage in military uniform at a political rally for former Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul.
Some may have read follow-up reports that the corporal was disciplined for violating the rules against political activity by Soldiers.
Those rules are contained within "Army Command Policy," Army Regulation 600-20, paragraph 5-3, appendix B.
But what about civilians who work for the Army? Do they have the same limitations?
The answer is no.
The rules regarding political activities by civilian government employees are contained within the Hatch Act. The law is named after Sen. Carl Hatch of New Mexico and was first passed in 1939. The law has been amended over the years but remains the source for any discussion of permissible and prohibited political activities by civilian employees.
As long as the activity is not during duty hours, in a federal building, while wearing an official uniform or while using a federally-owned vehicle, civilian employees can:
•Vote; assist in voter registration drives; contribute to political campaigns, political parties or partisan political groups; attend political fundraising functions; distribute campaign literature; attend and be active at political rallies and meetings, including speech-making, but not solicit contributions; join political parties and campaigns; hold office in political clubs or parties; circulate nomination petitions; campaign for or against referendum questions or constitutional amendment; have a bumper sticker on a privately owned vehicle unless that POV is used to conduct official business on a recurring basis, in which case the sticker must be covered; have a sign in their yard; wave a sign on the roadside; and be candidates for office in nonpartisan elections as long as those duties do not conflict with their official duties.
However, while on duty in a federal building, using a federally-owned or leased vehicle, or wearing a federal uniform or official insignia, civilian employees can't:
•Engage in any political activity; wear campaign buttons or a T-shirt in support of a political candidate; display political posters in the office; post comments to a political blog; contribute money through an online website; send emails dealing with political activity even if done on a personal smartphone.
On or off duty, civilian employees can't do the following:
•Use official titles or positions while engaged in any political activity; host a political fundraiser in his or her own home; invite others to a political fundraiser or collect contributions for or sell tickets to a fundraiser; accept contributions for or solicit contributions to a political candidate or party; stuff envelopes requesting contributions; run for public office in a partisan election; invite subordinate employees to political events or in any way encourage subordinates to get involved in political activity; or encourage or discourage the political activities of a contractor or anyone working for a contractor.
What about photos? Must photos of President Barrack Obama be taken down because it is an election year?
The answer is no.
Although the general rule is that photos of partisan political candidates can't be displayed in the federal workplace, there are exceptions to this rule. One exception allows for display of the traditional portrait photo of the president or photos of the president conducting official business. However, these photos must be displayed in a traditional size and manner and cannot be altered in any way. Also, photos distributed by a political party aren't official and can't be displayed.
A second exception applies to all candidate photographs. An employee can have a photo in his or her office if the photo was on display in advance of the election season; the employee is in the photo with the candidate; the photo is a personal one; the employee has a personal relationship with the candidate; and the photograph is taken at some kind of personal event or function, like a wedding, and not at a campaign event or some other type of partisan political event.
If you have questions about the rules' applicability to your particular situation, contact your unit ethics counselor/legal advisor. The penalties for violation of these rules are severe and include termination from government employment.
(Editor's Note: Wright is the attorney-advisor and ethics counselor for MSE-HI and USAG-HI.)