The 2016 elections are just around the corner, bringing with it extensive media coverage and an abundance of political activities throughout the nation. There’s also no lack of political conversation and debate on social media, which allows people to share their opinions on candidates and issues far and wide. While it might be tempting to join in the conversation, we, as Army professionals – whether active duty or DA civilian – should be aware of the Department of Defense policies that outline what we can and cannot do in terms of political activity, whether during an election season or not.
Active duty service members (including cadets) may not take part in partisan political activities, and should avoid any inference that their political activities imply, or appear to imply, Department of Defense sponsorship or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign or cause.
Service members may not campaign for a partisan candidate, engage in partisan fundraising activities, serve as an officer of a partisan club or speak before a partisan gathering. However, they may express their personal opinions on political candidates and issues, make monetary contributions to a political campaign/organization and attend political events as a spectator when not in uniform.
DA civilians may, in their personal capacities, volunteer with a political campaign or organization. They may not solicit or receive political contributions, engage in political activity while on duty or in a Federal building, send or forward political emails, post political messages on social media while in a Federal building (even if off-duty and even if using personal device), or use government equipment when engaging in political activities.
On social media, both service members and DA civilians may generally express personal views on public issues or political candidates on social media platforms, much as if they were writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper. However, if identified by a social media site as a DoD employee (whether military or civilian), then the post must clearly state that the views expressed are those of the individual alone, and not those of the DoD.
There are additional restrictions for active duty Soldiers. They may “like” “follow” or “friend” a political party or candidate. However, they may not post links to, share or retweet comments or posts from the social media page of the party or candidate. That means, for example, a Soldier may follow Candidate X on Twitter, but cannot retweet any of Candidate X’s tweets. Per DoD regulations, this constitutes participation in political activities.
Soldiers also should not comment, post or link to material that violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice or Army regulations. For example, Soldiers may not post comments showing contempt for public officials, release sensitive information or posting unprofessional material that is prejudicial to good order and discipline.
As I mentioned previously in this article, it is important that our political activity and speech does not imply any sort of DoD endorsement or support of a candidate or issue. But for those of us in the profession of arms, there is a deeper rationale for these limitations. When we take the oath to “support and defend the Constitution,” we are placing ourselves subordinate to our civilian authorities, which includes Congress and our Commander-in-Chief. Furthermore, we represent, as our “client”, the American people. Therefore, it’s important we remain apolitical, so our leaders and our client have the confidence that we will carry out any mission assigned to us, regardless of politics.
There is a leadership aspect to this as well. Good leaders build cohesive teams where everyone, regardless of gender, faith or no faith, sexual orientation, ethnicity or political persuasion, feels like a valued member of the team. Good leaders build people up and build unity and inclusiveness; they don’t tear down or alienate them. As leaders, we should never say or do anything, whether in public or on social media, that might cause a teammate to be distrustful of us or feel isolated from the team.
However the most important political activity you can participate in is voting. I encourage you, if you haven’t already done so, to register to vote, whether locally or via absentee ballot, so your voice is heard.
If you have any questions about whether a political activity is permitted or not, please contact the Staff Judge Advocate’s office. For questions on how to register to vote, contact your voting assistance officer.
Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, Jr.