[ The Real McCoy Online Home ]                     

September 14, 2012

News

Federal employees should be aware of restrictions during election season

Story by Harry Hughes, Installation Legal Office

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and the Department of Defense (DoD) Public Affairs Office recently published guidance regarding political activities that addresses issues raised by the use of social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Tumblr, LinkedIn, etc.) by Soldiers and civilian employees. With the election season currently in full swing, now is a good time for all federal government employees to review the restrictions placed on political activities in the workplace and off duty. The first part of this article lists the generally restricted and allowed political activities followed by an explanation of how the general rules apply to social media.

Prohibitions:
Some of the more-common restrictions on political activities prohibit civilian employees and servicemembers from:
• Running for partisan political offices;
• Using their official authority or influence to interfere with or affect the result of an election;
• Soliciting or receiving political contributions;
• Engaging in political activity while on duty or in the federal workplace;
• Engaging in political activity while wearing an official uniform or displaying official insignias identifying the office or position of the DoD employee;
• Engaging in political activities while using government-owned or -leased vehicles or resources; or
• Wearing political buttons on duty.

Permissible:
Certain limited political activities are permissible off duty. Civilian employees and servicemembers may:
• Register, vote, and express personal opinions;
•  Encourage others to exercise their voting rights;
• Join political clubs, and attend political meetings and rallies as a spectator when not in uniform;
• Make monetary contributions to political organizations;
• Sign petitions for specific legislative action;
• Write letters to the editor expressing personal views; and
• Display bumper stickers on private vehicles, provided that the bumper stickers are consistent with good order and discipline on the installation.
(The above-listed activities are not a complete list of prohibited or allowed political activities. Refer to DoD Directive 1344.10 or a local/servicing legal office for complete guidance.)

Social Media:
The recent guidance promulgated by OSC and DoD concerning social media and political activities is based on the following concepts. Be aware that prohibitions placed on active-duty servicemembers are stricter than those imposed upon civilian employees in some instances.
• While federal employees are not prohibited from expressing their opinions concerning partisan political candidates and political parties, they are prohibited from activities that are directed at the success or failure of a political party, partisan political candidate, or partisan political group, while they are on duty or in a federal workplace. Thus, federal employees are prohibited from advocating for or against a political party, partisan political group, or candidate for partisan public office through a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform while they are on duty or in the federal workplace. However, doing so off duty and away from the federal workplace is permissible.
• Federal employees are prohibited from using their official authority or influence to affect the result of an election. Therefore, although employees may advocate for or against political parties, partisan political groups, or candidates for partisan public office while off duty and away from the federal workplace, they may not refer to their official titles or positions with the government while engaged in such efforts. Note, however, that the inclusion of a federal employee’s official title or position on one’s social media profile, without more, is not considered an improper use of official authority to bolster one’s posted statements.
• Federal employees are prohibited from soliciting, accepting, or receiving political contributions at any time. Thus, at no time should they suggest or ask anyone to make contributions to a political party, partisan political candidate, or partisan political group. Further, they should not provide links to the contribution page of any of those entities’ websites.
• Although federal employees may never use their official authority or influence to affect the result of an election, federal employees who are “friends” with their subordinate employees or have “followers” who are subordinate employees may advocate for or against a political party, partisan political group, or candidate for partisan political office, provided the supervisor’s statements are directed at all of his Facebook “friends” or Twitter “followers,” e.g., if he posted his opinion concerning a candidate in his Facebook “status” field. On the other hand, such statements may not be specifically directed toward subordinate employees, or to a subset of friends that includes subordinates, e.g., by sending a Facebook “message” to a subordinate employee, posting a partisan political comment on a subordinate employee’s Facebook “wall,” “direct messaging” a subordinate employee, or sending a “tweet” directed at (containing the twitter handle of) the subordinate employee. In these situations, the supervisor’s actions are purposefully targeting subordinates with the message. Similar to the guidance above concerning Facebook and Twitter’s messaging functions, a supervisor may never send political e-mail to subordinate employees.
• Federal employees are prohibited from soliciting, accepting, or receiving political contributions at any time; however, they are not responsible for the acts of a third party, even if the third party’s actions appear on their social media webpage.
Thus, if a federal employee’s “friend” posts a link to the contribution page of a political party, partisan candidate, or partisan political group, or otherwise solicits political contributions, the employee does not need to take any action.
The same advice applies to any tweets directed at a federal employee. However, the federal employee should not “like, “share,” or “retweet” the solicitation, or respond in any way that would tend to encourage other readers to donate.
• Federal employees are prohibited from engaging in political activity while on duty or in a federal workplace. Thus, if they are a “friend” of, or “like,” a political party, partisan political group, or partisan candidate on Facebook, or “follow” such entities on Twitter, they should not engage in activities with respect to those entities’ social media accounts during duty hours or while in the federal workplace. This would include, for example, suggesting that others “like,” “friend,” or “follow” the party, group, or candidate, accepting an invitation to a partisan political event, or forwarding the invitation to others. In addition, federal employees are prohibited from soliciting, accepting, or receiving political contributions at any time. Thus, if an employee receives an invitation from the party, group, or candidate to a fundraising event via Facebook or Twitter, the employee may not share that invitation with others.

The following guidance from DoD applies specifically to active-duty servicemembers.
• Servicemembers may generally express their own personal views on public issues or political candidates via social-media platforms much the same as they would be permitted to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper. However, if the social media site/post identifies the member as on active duty (or if the member is otherwise reasonably identifiable as an active-duty member), then the entry must clearly and prominently state that the views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the DoD.
• An active-duty member may not post or make direct links to a political party, partisan political candidate, campaign, group, or cause because such activity is the equivalent of distributing literature on behalf of those entities or individuals, which is prohibited. Moreover, an active-duty member may not post or comment on the Facebook pages or “tweet” at the Twitter accounts of a political party, or partisan political candidate, campaign, group, or cause, as such activity would be engaging in partisan political activity, which is also prohibited.
• An active-duty member may become a “friend” of, or “like,” the Facebook page, or “follow” the Twitter account of a political party or partisan candidate, campaign, group, or cause. However, they must refrain from suggesting that others “like,” “friend,” or “follow” the political party, partisan political candidate, campaign, group, or cause, or forwarding an invitation or solicitation from such entities to others.

The rules governing political activities by employees of the federal government are generally straight forward, but when applied to certain factual situations, may cause confusion.

If you have any questions about which political activities are prohibited or what is permissible in the Fort McCoy community, contact the Fort McCoy Installation Legal Office at 608-388-2165 for further guidance.

(Hughes is an attorney-adviser with the Fort McCoy Installation Legal Office, and also is an environmental law specialist.)

[ Top of Page ]

[ The Real McCoy Online Home ]