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By Marcus Hill, 50th Space Wing
/ Published June 09, 2020
Air Force Instruction 51-508 section 2.3, states, “Airmen can register to vote, vote, encourage others to vote, join a partisan or nonpartisan political club and attend its meetings when not in uniform, but not in any official capacity nor listed as a sponsor.” Airmen may not march or ride in a partisan political parade and display a political sign, banner, or poster on a private vehicle. The AFI also restricts Airmen from serving or sponsoring a partisan political club and performing clerical or other duties for a partisan political committee or candidate during a campaign and during or after an election day.
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- With the 2020 Presidential election approaching, it’s important Airmen understand political guidelines, restrictions and how they can participate.
Airmen are not excluded from the political process and have multiple avenues for participation in political activities.
“The general idea is to protect Airmen from situations that could compromise their integrity,” said Lt. Col. Andrea Hall, 50th Space Wing staff judge advocate. “Military members are held in high esteem by the public and could unwittingly be used for a political agenda.”
Air Force Instruction 51-508 section 2.3, states, “Airmen can register to vote, vote, encourage others to vote, join a partisan or nonpartisan political club and attend its meetings when not in uniform, but not in any official capacity nor listed as a sponsor.”
The AFI lists partisan political activity as “activity supporting or relating to candidates who represent, or issues specifically identified with, national or state political parties or associated or ancillary organizations.”
Nonpartisan activity is supporting or relating to candidates who do not represent, or issues not specifically identified with, national or state political parties or associated or ancillary organizations.
“[Airmen] need to be aware of what their restrictions are while they wear the uniform,” said Master Sgt. Benjamin Davis, 50th Wing Staff Agency/50th Mission Support Group first sergeant. “Airmen need to make sure they understand the guidance that’s out there for what they can and can’t do when they’re in an active duty military member capacity versus when they’re in their civilian capacity. They need to know the guidance that the Air Force puts out that drives those lines.”
Airmen may promote and encourage others to exercise their voting rights, attend political meetings or rallies as spectators outside of the duty day and out of their uniforms.
However, Airmen may not march or ride in a partisan political parade and display a political sign, banner, or poster on a private vehicle. The AFI also restricts Airmen from serving or sponsoring a partisan political club and performing clerical or other duties for a partisan political committee or candidate during a campaign and during or after an election day.
“Military members can be punished for failure to obey these provisions of AFI 51-508 under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” Hall said. “Civilian employees are subject to administrative and/or disciplinary action for violations of mandatory provisions of AFI 51-508 in accordance with AFI 36-704.”
The AFI also provides guidelines on demonstrations, which allow Airmen to participate in activity outside of the duty day and outside of their uniforms. Davis noted Airmen need to remain cognizant of the implications of doing so.
“[Airmen] are prohibited in participating in demonstration when they’re on duty, if they’re in a foreign [country] or when the activity can breach law and order and violence is likely to result,” he said. “If I go to be part of a peaceful demonstration, that [demonstration] can very quickly change from peaceful demonstration into a riot. That would constitute a breach in law and order, which could constitute violence to result.”
Hall said commanders have the authority and responsibility to take action to ensure Airmen perform the mission and maintain good order and discipline, which includes placing lawful restrictions on “dissident” and protest activities. She recommends commanders consult with their legal advisor before ordering restrictions.
Airmen must also remain aware of their social media posts in order to not violate guidelines. AFI 1-1, section 2.15.5 states, “When you are expressing personal opinions on social media sites and can be identified as an Airman, you should make clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of the Air Force.”
Airmen can follow, friend or like a political party or candidate running for partisan office, but cannot share or retweet comments or tweets from the social media accounts of a political party or candidate running for partisan office.
“Oftentimes we’re quick to say, ‘This is my personal social media account,’” Davis said. “If I make comments or say things on my personal social media, just because it’s not an Air Force-affiliated site, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t drive conversation toward the Air Force. We have to be aware that as a military member with a higher calling that we have to be the steady force in the community.”
Political guidelines and restrictions also pertain to Department of Defense civilians. While Airmen fall under the AFI, federal civilian employees fall under the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act, a federal law passed in 1939, limits certain political activities of federal employees. The purpose of the Act is to maintain a federal workforce that is free from partisan political influence.
Air Force civilian employees stationed at Peterson Air Force Base are all subject to the Hatch Act and qualify as “less restricted” employees. Generally speaking, civilian employees may participate in most political activities as long as it is not on duty or in the federal workplace. Political activity refers to any activity directed at the success or failure of a partisan group or candidate. However, the use of social media presents unique issues with the Hatch Act. Due to the ease of accessing those accounts at work, either on government computers or smartphones, there has been an uptick in the amount of Hatch Act violations. In the social media context, political activity includes sharing, liking, or retweeting a post from a partisan group or candidate.
For more information on the do’s and do not’s of the Hatch Act, visit www.osc.gov and look at the Hatch Act resources found there or contact the legal office with further questions.
To ensure Airmen and civilians do not violate Air Force guidelines and policies, they should review the guiding documents.
To review more permitted and prohibited political activities for Airmen, visit https://static.e-publishing.af.mil/production/1/af_ja/publication/afi51-508/afi51-508.pdf.
For additional information, visit https://static.e-publishing.af.mil/production/1/af_cc/publication/afi1-1/afi1-1.pdf , https://osc.gov/Services/Pages/HatchAct-AdvisoryOpinion.aspx and https://www.publicaffairs.af.mil/Programs/Air-Force-Social-Media/. Also, call 567-5050 to contact the legal office.
“Editor’s Note: The original article is edited in part by the 21 SW Judge Advocate to promote clarity of information.”