The 2016 United States Presidential election season is upon us. As a federal executive branch employee, it’s important to be extremely careful when using social media to engage with, talk about, or otherwise post about the remaining presidential candidates.
The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in “political activity” while on duty. Duty status, of course, include telecommuting and other pay statuses other than paid leave. It also prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity in the workplace. In November, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) revised its previously issued guidance regarding social media activity to account for the changing social media landscape, directly addressing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
What is political activity? OSC defines political activity as any activity directed at the success or failure of a political party or partisan political group, or a candidate in a partisan race. Of course, career employees should remember to never engage in political activity in an official capacity online or otherwise, or to solicit or receive political contributions at any time. But the regulation of social media activity is more nuanced and more confusing.
For example, OSC’s guidance makes clear that federal employees can express opinions about a candidate, but not while on duty, and not while making reference to your government position. Federal employees may, according to OSC’s revised guidance, use a campaign logo or the photograph of a presidential candidate for their cover or header photo on Twitter or on Facebook. Muddying the waters, however, is OSC’s guidance that when using a candidate’s campaign logo or photograph as your profile photo on Facebook or Twitter, rather than a header image, employees may not use their social media accounts at all while on duty.
If you have Facebook friends or Twitter followers in the workplace, you should be careful how you communicate with those individuals about this year’s election. Sending a tweet or Facebook message to a subordinate employee that indicates your support for Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz or any other candidate could violate the Hatch Act.
Some federal employees are “further restricted” by the Hatch Act from participating in partisan political management and campaigning. These employees, typically employed by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, may “like” a social media post from a candidate or partisan group, and may comment on the candidate’s page, but not when on duty. However, these employees are prohibited from “liking” certain posts from a candidate, namely those posts that solicit for campaign contributions.
OSC’s update provides some clarification to employees who have social media accounts, but the rules are nuanced and ever-evolving, and thus lack clarity. When in doubt, don’t use social media to show any support for a presidential candidate without specific permission from your agency’s ethics office, or from OSC itself. As the presidential race intensifies, it’s more important than ever to make sure your social media activity complies with the Hatch Act.