We all have opinions. Right now it seems we are overflowing with opinions. When my phone gave me a low battery warning Sunday night I checked my power usage and saw that I had spent 48 percent of my phone’s juice on Twitter that day fretting and tweeting and reading.
That is my personal Twitter account. As a private citizen I can say whatever I want on Twitter as long as it is not spam, abuse, or a copyright infringement. But I am also a government employee. Where do I draw the line when it comes to political opinion, activism, and advocacy? The intersection between my home and office communication conduct can seem murky, especially now with alt-agency Twitter accounts cropping up. So it is important to understand our rights when it comes to personal versus official uses of social media.
We have First Amendment rights too. And the public needs us.
We have every right to speak our minds as private citizens. Free speech is the one of the defining features of our democracy. In fact, free speech is so important that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has fought for the speech rights of hate groups. Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney at the ACLU, wrote a useful blog post about our speech rights as govies. She wrote that the new administration is entitled to decide what we can communicate when we are on the job. However, as private individuals we can speak on personal time and in a personal capacity about matters that affect the public. Not only that, but the American people need to hear our voices. She cited the importance “of maintaining ample breathing room for public employees to speak: They are often the ones with the most relevant expertise and intimate knowledge of how government works, and can bring a unique perspective to public debate about critical issues.”
It’s OK to disagree with your agency, but . . .
I recommend reading Dannielle Blumenthal’s article about personal use of social media in Government Executive. Blumenthal is a long-standing member of the Federal Communicators Network, which devised an informal best practice “cheat sheet” on personal use of social media. Blumenthal’s article boils these down to ten useful tips that clarify some of the policies and official guidance, including this: “You are entitled to discuss, analyze or disagree with your agency about publicly available information. That said, your agency may require you to tell them if you do so.” When in doubt, ask for guidance from your agency. As constantly advancing technology continues to offer us new ways to communicate, agencies and organizations sometimes have to scramble to write or rewrite their social media policies.
Respect restrictions on political activity at work.
Read the Hatch Act. Start with this condensed version, or this FAQ from the Office of Special Council, which includes guidance specific to supervisors. Basically, we cannot engage in political activity while on duty or from a federal office building. This includes emailing or posting comments on blogs or social media sites that advocate for a political party. Our salaries are paid by taxpayers—it’s important that we do not use our positions to benefit a partisan candidate or influence an election.
Social media may be within our freedom of speech, but in an era of extreme political polarization it can also be a source of stress. Many of us get quickly overloaded by political content on social media sites. A Pew Research study showed that and more than half of social media users describe their online interactions with those they disagree with politically as stressful and frustrating. Be kind—to yourself and others.
Rachel White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.