FORT SILL, Okla. — The 2012 Presidential election is less than 90 days away. Political perspectives and opinions are running at a fevered pitch, and many people are more than willing to express their opinions in public.
Often Soldiers and government employees want to get involved with the political process, especially on social media sites. There are, however, a number of things that they need to keep in mind when it comes to being in military or government service and being involved in political activity.
For example, an Army Reservist found himself in deep trouble last year after he took the stage at a Ron Paul campaign event while in uniform to express his support for the candidate. This kind of political activity is prohibited because he was in uniform.
Social media is giving people more opportunities to express their opinions about politics than ever before. A statement can be posted on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites and be viewed across the country and around the world instantly. Some of these messages are posted on the fly, and not thought out concerning their impact. Soldiers and government employees need to know the rules that apply to such public statements, both on the Internet and other places.
In an example of how social media can cause trouble for military personnel, a Marine was recently discharged from the Corps because he posted critical and derogatory comments about the president on Facebook. The site failed to indicate that the views being expressed were not the views of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense. He had previously been warned by the Marine Corps that such sites were a violation of military policy, but he did not heed the warning.
Social media guidelines
DOD has included guidelines for using social media related to political activities and issues in the “Public Affairs Guidance for Political Campaigns and Elections.” A link to the full document is at the end of this article. Here are highlights of guidance offered by the DOD regarding political activity on social media:
Active-duty service members may generally express personal views on public issues or political candidates via social media or personal blogs, much like writing a letter to a newspaper.
If the social media page or posts identifies the person as an active-duty service member, then the page or post should clearly and prominently state that the views expressed do not represent the DoD, or their branch of service.
Active-duty members may become “friends” or “like” a Facebook page, or “follow” the Twitter account of a political party or partisan candidates.
Active-duty military personnel may not do the following:
Active-duty members may not engage in any partisan political activity, even on social media sites. Posting of any direct links to political parties, partisan candidates, campaigns, groups or causes is the equivalent of distributing campaign literature on behalf of the individual or party, which is prohibited.
Active-duty members may not post or comment on pages or send “tweets” to political parties or partisan candidates, as such activity is engaging in partisan political activity through a medium sponsored or controlled by political entities.
Active-duty members should not engage in activities that suggest others “like,” “friend,” or “follow” the political party, partisan political candidate, group or cause, or forward an invitation or solicitation from those political causes.
Active military service members may be subject to additional restrictions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice governing the use of government resources and communication systems, such as email and the Internet. To learn more see the “Public Affairs Guidance for Political Campaigns and Elections” document: http://tinyurl.com/d9ovwxh.
Hatch Act and political activity
The Hatch Act, originally passed in 1939, applies to federal employees. The Act was amended in 1993 and “permits most federal employees to take an active part in partisan political activities and campaigns. While federal employees are still prohibited from seeking political office in partisan elections, most employees are free to work, while off-duty, on partisan campaigns of candidates of their choice.”
The Department of Defense recently published the “Civilian and Military Personnel Participation in Political Activities” guide to help civilian and military know what is permitted. The basic guideline is contained in DoD Directive 1344.10 “Guidance for Military Personnel” and states:
“Generally all service members are prohibited from acting in any manner that gives rise to the inference of endorsement or approval of candidates for political office by DoD or the U.S military.”
A clear example of this is an active-duty military person wearing their uniform while engaging in political activity, as mentioned earlier. Reservists and Guard members not on active duty have more latitude and may engage in certain political activities, provided they are not in uniform, and do not act in a manner that implies sponsorship or approval of a candidate. Military personnel should avoid any activity that violates this policy.
DoD civilians personnel are covered under similar guidelines for political activities that are directed towards success or failure of a political candidate or party. Government employees are allowed to participate in the same political activities that military personnel are allowed to do, as previously mentioned.
However, government employees may not:
Participate in any political activity while on duty or in a federal building.
Use the insignia of a government office or any official authority while participating in political activities.
Solicit, accept or receive political contributions, regardless of where these activities take place.
Display campaign posters, buttons, bumper sticker, screen savers or any other campaign materials in a federal building.
Engage in political activities while using a government owned or leased vehicle.
Host a fundraiser for partisan candidates.
Run for public office in a partisan election.
For more information see “Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces” at http://tinyurl.com/cv8aup and “Civilian and Military Personnel Participation in Political Activities” at http://tinyurl.com/c5bshlw.