News: Politics can be a hot-button topic, so be careful with words
Story by Christina McCann
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - Anyone who has spent time in uniform knows there are limitations to a service member's freedoms. You're not free to wear body piercings, hats are required outdoors while in uniform, and you are, technically speaking, on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
There are also limitations on free speech - and as elections draw closer, opinions can become a hot-button issue. A Soldier recently got in trouble for speaking in uniform at a political rally for a candidate.
But what about Facebook? Twitter? What if your settings only allow friends and family to see your post - can you still rant about Romney or stump for Santorum?
In a word, carefully.
"You can express your personal opinion, as long as you're not attributing it to the branch of service or the Department of Defense," said Capt. Amanda Snipes, a Judge Advocate officer with the 673d Air Base Wing on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. "As long as you're not implying that it's policy (it's OK)."
Facebook is a gray area, Snipes said. The regulations don't address social media.
"It's OK, but be aware - if you're posting political stuff, don't use a profile photo of yourself in uniform. Be cognizant of how people can take it as a totality."
Privacy settings can make a big difference, Snipes said.
"If it's a personal page for friends and family, they know you and that it's your opinion. If it's a public politics page, that's another story."
The regulations state uniformed service members can join partisan or non-partisan political clubs as long as they don't attend in uniform, so "friending" a candidate is fine - but again, don't use a uniformed photo as a profile picture.
Civilian DoD employees cannot solicit donations at work and are otherwise subject to the Hatch Act for political activities, but with fewer restrictions than uniformed service members.
Another case not covered in the regulation is commenting on news stories. Plenty of people weigh in on every news story imaginable. But should you bring your status as a military member to bear on a news story?
Commenting is fine, Snipes said, again with the caveat that posters be careful their words are not an endorsement - or even creating the perception of endorsement. And, of course, being mindful of operational security.
And what about chatting with co-workers about your political leanings?
"I advise against talking politics in the workplace," Snipes said. "Talking in general is OK, but you can't try to influence people. In a political discussion, things can get heated, and there could be undue influence or a perception of undue influence."
And, of course, uniformed service members are forbidden to use contemptuous language about the commander-in-chief.
"The most important thing, I think, is to be cognizant of what people could hear or how they could take words," Snipes said. "Things taken out of context can be bad, so be aware of who is listening."
A bumper sticker for a political candidate, in good taste, is allowed on a personal vehicle, but for those in base housing, yard and window signs are not. In housing not on the installation, signs are fine - as long as they don't imply military or DoD endorsement.
Displaying large signs in or on a vehicle is not permitted to anyone on the installation, whether they're service members, employees, or retirees using installation facilities, said Laura Patterson, an Administrative Law attorney with 673d ABW.
"(Retirees) can't be punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, obviously," Patterson said. "But they can be escorted off base" for violations. Signs must be taken down before entering the gate and replaced upon leaving.
Service members can attend - but not participate in - fundraisers, as well.
"If you're paying for a ticket, that's allowed," Snipes said. "Selling tickets, even off base or in civilian clothes, is not."
Direct donations to candidates are forbidden, but donations to political action committees or party committees are acceptable.
Violations of the regulations can lead to serious penalties, although Snipes said issues seldom go so far as to necessitate legal involvement.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice, nonetheless, provides a maximum punishment of a court-martial, reduction in grade, dishonorable discharge, forfeitures and two years of confinement under Article 92.
Get involved with the political process; it's a right and a responsibility granted by the Constitution.
But be sure to exercise your freedoms with good judgment.