Just like everyone else in the United States, Marines and Department of Defense civilians have opinions. As citizens, they have the freedom to generate and express their beliefs. However, as the 2012 presidential elections draw near, it is a good time to be reminded of the do’s and don’ts in regard to service members and civilian government employees participating in the election process, as well as how opinions can be appropriately expressed in a public forum.
The guidelines for any federal employee’s participation in political activities are stated in Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, which applies to service members, and the Hatch Act, which applies to federal civilian employees. Both groups are prohibited from using their official capacity to influence an election.
Service members may express their personal opinion on political candidates and issues, join political clubs and attend their meetings, attend political fundraisers and make donations, when not in uniform, as a spectator and private citizen only. However, aside from making donations, they may not assist any partisan political activity, candidate or cause. The key to being within regulations while in attendance at a political event is remaining a spectator and not becoming a participant and not attending in uniform.
“The DOD directive allows individual service members to support whatever political party [or] candidate they want,” said James J. O’Donnell, the attorney advisor at staff judge advocate, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific. “They can express their personal opinion but not as a representative of the armed forces. You don’t do it in uniform.”
It is unlawful for a service member to participate in any interview or group discussion as an advocate for or against any party. It is also prohibited for any active duty service member to make a public political speech or serve in any capacity for any partisan political campaign, convention or group, whether in uniform or not.
According to Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, service members can show their support for a political candidate or party by placing a bumper sticker on their private vehicles or displaying signs at their homes, if the home is not on a military installation.
They can also support a candidate, party or idea on their personal social media website as long as it’s not a part of a communication campaign and they do not appear to represent the view of the armed forces. A service member cannot post links to official campaigning websites or forums; however, it is permissible to "like" a campaign's page. They cross the line into participating in the campaign by posting or commenting on the campaign and/or candidate's page.
Nearly all federal civilians at MarForPac are classified as less restricted under the Hatch act, which allows them to endorse candidates and attend, participate, be active members or hold office in political clubs as private citizens when no inference or appearance of official endorsement can be reasonably drawn; however, they cannot engage in any political activities in any federal building, while on duty or when using a federally-owned or leased vehicle.
Service members who fail to follow Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 may be punished under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. The potential consequence for civilians is dismissal from federal service.
“(They need to) be sure that any activity they do is clearly in a personal capacity and doesn’t potentially give an inference that it is in an official capacity,” O’Donnell said.
For more guidance on what political involvement is permitted, contact the SJA at 808-477-8505. Service members may also refer to the Department of Defense Directive 1344.10. Federal civilian employees may refer to the Hatch Act.