Many Airmen face one question every four years or so, “How politically active can I be?
This article provides a brief description of the limitations applicable to service members when it comes to political activity.
The political activities of service members are governed by DOD Directive 1344.10, and Airmen in particular are subject to the additional guidance of AFI 51-902. These key documents make clear that, while Airmen can register to vote and cast their vote, no Airman can express a political opinion or engage in political activities when acting in his or her official capacity, or under circumstances that imply official endorsement by the Department of Defense.
What does that mean? It means that an Airman can express personal political opinions, join partisan political groups, serve as a non-partisan election official, sign petitions for legislative action, write letters to the editor in a private capacity, make monetary contributions to a political candidate, display a political bumper sticker on his or her private vehicle, and attend partisan political fundraising activities as a spectator, but only in a private capacity and never in uniform or under other circumstances that might lead to an inference that he or she is acting on behalf of the Department of Defense.
For example, an Airman could attend a political rally if he or she is not in uniform and is only attending as a private citizen. However, if that same Airman gave a speech at the rally, or attended in uniform, he or she would likely face discipline for engaging in prohibited political activity. Other prohibited activities include using one’s official authority to influence an election or solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue, publishing partisan political articles and serving in an official capacity as a sponsor of a political club. Furthermore, Airmen should not speak before partisan political gatherings nor should they participate in media programs or group discussions that promote a partisan candidate or cause.
Airmen also cannot march or ride in partisan political parades or display political signs at their residence on a military installation, even if that residence is part of a privatized housing development. And while an Airman can display a bumper-sticker sized sign on his or her private vehicle, he or she is prohibited from displaying any political sign, banner or poster of a larger size. Finally, no Airman can run for a partisan federal or state office while on active duty.
The rules and regulations governing political activities serve both to protect individual first amendment rights and to protect the institutional integrity of the military and its members. The bottom line is that while servicemembers have the right to engage in politics in a personal capacity, they should steer clear of any activity that may reasonably be viewed as directly or indirectly associating the Department of Defense or the military with a partisan political activity, or that is otherwise contrary to the spirit or intent of the rules described above.
If you have questions about what political activities you may engage in, please contact the Edwards Legal Office at (661) 277-4310.