Talking Politics? Know Your Limits

  • Published
  • By Capt. Gregory Justis
  • 436 AW/JA

Today’s political climate is, to say the least, spirited and vivacious. 

Whether it’s conversations around the dinner table, on the sidewalk downtown or at your weekly ukulele club meeting, politics seem to have taken center stage. No matter your political leaning, it is important to remember that all military personnel and civilian employees are required to follow DoD and Air Force Regulations concerning involvement in political activities.

            Regulations limiting political activities keep politics away from the workplace and eliminate any appearance the military endorses a particular campaign or cause and prevent the appearance that the military is attempting to influence the political process. Under the Hatch Act of 1939 and DoDD 1344.10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces, uniformed military personnel and civilian employees of the executive branch of the federal government are prohibited from engaging in some forms of political activity. 

            As political topics continue to enter the popular discourse, military members and civilian employees frequently have questions or concerns about possible violations of regulations that limit political activity for government employees. For example, questions were raised in late 2018, when military personnel in Iraq were photographed with hats featuring the campaign slogan of President Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again” (“MAGA”). Because “MAGA” hats feature a campaign slogan for President Trump, a partisan political candidate running for re-election in 2020, military members and civilian employees are prohibited from displaying or wearing the hats in the workplace. As with all activities prohibited by the Hatch Act and DoDD 1344.10, the purpose of this prohibition is to ensure that politics do not enter the federal workplace and to avoid the appearance of official endorsement of a particular candidate for public office. 

            Notably, regulations regarding political activities apply to personnel differently, depending on their status. Executive branch civilians, for example, are permitted to generally engage in any type of political activity except for running as a political candidate in a partisan election. Civilians may not use their official authority or position to interfere with an election, nor can they engage in political activity while on duty or while wearing a uniform. Additionally, civilians may not wear political buttons, nor are they permitted to host or sponsor a political fundraiser; although, they may attend one. 

            Military members, which include active-duty, reservists and National Guardsmen, are prohibited from engaging in any political activities while in their official capacity or in uniform.  This includes marching in partisan political parades, distributing political literature and print material or engaging in any public commentary on political issues or campaigns. Military members cannot display a political sign, banner or poster (as distinguished from a bumper sticker) on their private vehicles. In addition, they may not display large political signs, posters, banners or similar devices for public display at their residences on military installations, even if the residence is part of privatized housing. Members must also use discretion when posting on social media about political topics while using a photo of themselves in uniform – again, the concern is tying the cause or the candidate to the Air Force.

            It is important to note that, despite regulations governing political activity for personnel in their official capacities, military members and civilians are free to engage in the political process; personnel may write letters to editors, participate in online blogging, march in parades or engage in politically charged speech – provided that they do so in an unofficial capacity. Indeed, the ability to engage in political discourse is a freedom woven into the fabric of American society, and all personnel may enjoy that freedom within the bounds of the proscribed regulations.

Perhaps most importantly, all personnel – military members and civilian employees alike – are encouraged to vote. For any personnel whose home of record is outside Delaware, assistance with the absentee voting process can be found at www.FVAP.gov.

For any questions concerning political activities, please consult the Dover Legal Office at (302) 677-3300.