NEWS | Sept. 19, 2012

Know the rules on social media and political speech

By 628th Air Base Wing Legal Office

The use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter has increased exponentially since the last presidential election. But as we move closer to election day, it is important for military members to be mindful of general limitations on political speech and the military's policies regarding social media as they participate in the election process.

It's no secret that as military members, we must uphold orders and follow directives and regulations issued by our elected civilian leadership. To avoid an appearance of attempting to influence civilian elections, the military has had a policy since the Civil War limiting the political speech of service members.

Most members are familiar with the broad Pentagon directives that say military personnel in uniform cannot sponsor a political club; participate in any television or radio program or group discussion that advocates for or against a political party, candidate or cause; or speak at any event promoting a political movement. When it comes to participating in political activities, the Joint Ethics Regulation, Department of Defense 5500.7-R, goes into detail about what, exactly, military personnel and Department of Defense civilians are and are not allowed to do. Additional guidance can be found in the Hatch Act Amendments (governing the political activities of DoD civilian employees), and DoD Directive 1344.10 "Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces on Active Duty."

Although these rules appear widely known, they are still violated. Many members may remember this January when Corp. Jesse Thorsen, an Army reservist, appeared in uniform on stage with Ron Paul at a televised campaign rally. Thorsen received a letter of reprimand for this highly publicized infraction.

In an effort to avoid similar situations, this past summer, DoD published a set of guidelines titled "Civilian and Military Personnel Participation in Political Activities." In addition to covering common infractions, these guidelines also specifically touch on one topic about which preceding directives and regulations only gave vague guidance; the use of social media in politics. The four-page memo references the "2012 DoD Public Affairs Guidance for Political Campaigns and Elections," as governing social media use. Section 9.4 of the Public Affairs guidance gives a very clear description of what is and is not accepted.

The guidance broadly applies to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, MySpace and any other social media sites. Generally, an active-duty service member may, via social media platforms, express her own personal views on political issues or candidates in a manner similar to a letter to the editor. If the post (or member's profile) identifies the member as on active duty, then the member must clearly state that "the views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the DoD (or Department of Homeland Security for members of the Coast Guard)." Even with a disclosure, an active-duty member may not engage in partisan political activity.

Additionally, an active-duty member may not employ direct hyperlinks to a political party, partisan political candidate, campaign, or the like. Doing so is considered the equivalent of distributing literature on behalf of those entities, a clearly prohibited activity. Also, an active-duty member may not post or comment on the Facebook pages or "tweet" at the Twitter accounts of such entities. Active-duty members may express their attachment to an individual or cause by "friending," "liking" or "following" it. However, members may not encourage others to do so as this could be perceived as soliciting support.

Members not on active duty are not subject to these social media restrictions as long as the member does not create the perception or appearance of official support by the DoD.

It is worth mentioning, in this context, that military members should also remember to be professional and follow other DoD regulations when using social media. Military members are on duty 24/7, and using social media to complain about a member's job or coworkers, issue threats or make derogatory comments to others, or engage in other unprofessional behavior, could land a service member in trouble. To be very clear: improper use of social media, for political purposes or otherwise, could result in a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Service members should therefore be cautious as to how they use social networking sites, and make sure not to violate any applicable rules. However, members should also remember that they can make their voice heard in the election season in perhaps the most meaningful way - by voting.