Fort McCoy News Nov. 13, 2015

Be aware of social-media limits on political activities

The U.S. Office of Special Council (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, Linked-In, etc.) by Soldiers and civilian employees.

With the election season currently upon us, now is a good time for all federal government employees to review the restrictions placed on political activities. 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.

Civilian employees and service members cannot run for partisan political offices. They cannot use official authority or influence to interfere with or affect the result of an election. Soliciting or receiving political contributions is prohibited.

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With a new election season approaching, U.S. Army military and civilian personnel should be aware of restrictions on political activities and how it relates to social media. U.S. Army file photo

Civilian employees and service members cannot engage in political activity while on duty or in the federal workplace, while wearing an official uniform or displaying official insignias identifying the office or position of the DOD employee, or while using government-owned or -leased vehicles or resources. They also cannot wear political buttons on duty.

Civilian employees and service members may register, vote, express personal opinions, and encourage others to exercise their voting rights. They may join political clubs and attend political meetings and rallies as spectators when not in uniform. They also may make monetary contributions to political organizations.

Employees and service members may sign petitions for specific legislative actions; 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 the servicing legal office for complete guidance.)

The recent guidance issued by OSC and DOD concerning social media and political activities is based on the following basic concepts. Be aware that prohibitions placed on active-duty service members 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 those candidates or groups while they are on duty or in a federal workplace.

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.

Employees may not refer to their official titles or positions with the government while advocating for or against political candidates or groups. The inclusion of a federal employee's official title or position on a social-media profile, without more, is not considered an improper use of official authority to bolster posted statements.

Federal employees are prohibited from soliciting, accepting, or receiving political contributions at any time. At no time should they suggest or ask anyone to contribute to a political party, partisan political candidate, or partisan political group. Further, they should not provide links to the contribution pages of any of those entities' websites.

Federal employees who are "friends" with their subordinate employees or have "followers" who are subordinate employees may advocate for or against a political group or candidate, provided the supervisor's statements are directed at all of his or her Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

Such statements may not be directed specifically toward subordinate employees, or to a subset of friends that includes subordinates, such as 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 the subordinate employee. A supervisor also may not send political email 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 webpages. If a federal employee's friend posts a link to a contribution page 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 encourage other readers to donate.

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.

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 those entities' social-media accounts during duty hours or while in the federal workplace.

The following guidance from DOD applies specifically to active-duty service members. Service members 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 state clearly and prominently 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.

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, he or she 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 straightforward, but may cause confusion when applied to certain situations. Anyone who has questions about which political activities are prohibited or what is permissible may contact the Fort McCoy Installation Legal Office at 608-388-2165 for further guidance.

   (Prepared by the Fort McCoy Installation Legal Office.)